Germany to shut down its last remaining nuclear reactors

Germany’s decision comes as it is trying to phase out coal, which still generates a third of its electricity, by 2038 at the latest

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SOURCEEcoWatch

Germany is set to shutter its last three nuclear plants on Saturday, in a phaseout initiated 20 years ago and sped up in response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011. 

The move comes as other countries — including the U.S. and the UK — have expressed renewed interest in nuclear as a way to generate electricity that does not contribute to the climate crisis, and some in Germany argued that the government should not follow through with the closures. 

“Shutting down the world’s most modern and safest nuclear power plants in Germany is a dramatic mistake that will have painful economic and ecological consequences for us,” deputy chairman of German liberal party Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP) Wolfgang Kubicki told the Funke media group, as TVP World reported.

Kubick’s party is a member of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s governing coalition, as AP News noted. However, the government held firm against requests from both within and without to extend the life of the country’s last three nuclear reactors. 

“The nuclear phase-out by April 15, that’s this Saturday, is a done deal,” Scholz spokesperson Christiane Hoffmann said, as AP News reported. 

Germany’s journey to nuclear retirement began in 2002, but picked up its pace in 2011 following protests in response to the Fukushima accident, according to Euronews and Sky. That incident, in which three reactor cores melted after a tsunami interrupted their power supply, released around 940 peta becquerels of radiation and forced more than 100,000 people to evacuate, according to the World Nuclear Association. 

“[E]ven in a high-tech country like Japan, the risks associated with nuclear energy cannot be controlled 100 per cent,” then-Chancellor Angela Merkel said at the time, according to Euronews. 

Germany has closed down 16 nuclear reactors since 2003, according to Sky. The last three standing are the Isar 2 and Neckarwestheim reactors as well as another located in Emsland in Lower Saxony. The reactors were supposed to close on the last day of 2022, but Scholz opted to keep them running through the winter in case the country faced energy shortages following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to AP News. Germany also brought retired coal plants back online for the same reason. Some have voiced concerns that the reactors may still be needed, but Environment Ministry spokesperson Bastian Zimmermann said this would be both illegal and too expensive. That’s because the plants are supposed to undergo safety checks every decade, but the last was in 2009. Mandatory inspections for 2019 were only waived because the plants were set to retire, so keeping them around would mean testing their safety again, a time-consuming process. 

Germany’s decision comes as it is trying to phase out coal, which still generates a third of its electricity, by 2038 at the latest, according to Sky. Nuclear, on the other hand, only makes up five percent, according to AP News. In order to meet its deadline, Germany will need to install “four to five wind turbines every day” Scholz has said, according to Euronews. 

Germany’s targets “are already ambitious without the nuclear phase-out — and every time you deprive yourself of a technological option, you make things more difficult,” energy expert at Brussels-based think tank Bruegel Georg Zachmann said, as Euronews reported. 

Other countries have chosen to include nuclear in their decarbonization schemes. The UK government is funding its first new nuclear plant in 35 years, while the Biden administration has offered money for aging plants to restart or extend their lives. However, while nuclear energy does not release climate-warming greenhouse gases, it is not without risks. In Minnesota, leaks at a nuclear plant in November and March have reignited concerns about the safety of the power source, especially since plant owner Xcel Energy waited four months before informing local residents of the first leak. 

“This leak, even though it was contained and poses no danger… it should be used as some sort of wake-up call,” University of Southern California engineering professor and nuclear safety expert Najmedin Meshkati said, as The Guardian reported. 

Others, however, maintain that the benefits of nuclear outweigh the risks in the context of the need to transition rapidly away from fossil fuels

“It is an industry that is highly scrutinized compared to other industries, and I think the Nuclear Regulatory Commission does a really good job at ensuring that safety is something that is practiced in the industry,” energy think tank Breakthrough senior nuclear energy analyst Charlyne Smith said, as The Guardian reported.

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