14 April 2023

The pure folly of Germany’s nuclear phase-out

By Lincoln Hill

This weekend, Germany will shut down the second, sixth and eighth most productive nuclear reactors in world history. In so doing, the German government has persisted in a senseless act of folly, against all the science and available evidence.

They have chosen, deliberately, to go backward in the struggle to save the planet. They have chosen to burn coal rather than to split atoms. They have chosen to sacrifice billions of euros of clean energy investment and decades of expertise on the altar of crude ideology. Simply put, the German nuclear phase-out is the single worst decision Europe has taken in the fight against climate change, and one for which we all are paying the price.

The decision itself has no basis in science. Ostensibly, the accident at Fukushima drove the Merkel Government to revive the nuclear phaseout. The most important thing to know here is that Japan, where Fukushima happened, is trying hard to restart its 30GW nuclear fleet, even as Germany finishes shuttering a fleet of 20GW. Japan has recognised that they can and should fix the foreseeable failures in plant resilience (water-proof back-up generators, build higher seawalls) and regulatory oversight that led to an entirely avoidable accident, minimise seismic risks, and continue safe nuclear operations. Germany, of course, had neither the shortcomings in plant resilience, nor the regulatory failures, nor the seismic risks that Japan had. They had no case for their decision.

The cost in carbon of that decision is catastrophic. To put some numbers on it, Germany had 20,490 MW of nuclear power in 2010. Those reactors could all have gone for 80 years, to the early 2050s at least, and the youngest ones years beyond that. A well-run fleet that size can save 150 million tonnes of CO2 every year versus coal. Germany intends to burn coal until 2038, so we are talking about well over 1 billion tonnes more CO2 over that period.

Yes, Germany built out renewables massively, but that on its own is never enough. Without nuclear baseload, Germany burns coal, and lots of it. On a windy day yesterday, with 26GW of wind on the bars, they were still burning 16GW of coal for power. France, with its large nuclear fleet, and Sweden, with its strong mix of nuclear, hydro and wind, were burning no coal at all. In fact, Germany’s own climate plans mean that they will burn more coal than anybody in Europe, much of it lignite, the dirtiest most polluting kind.

Coal, of course, does double the damage: carbon and air pollution. A Columbia University study from 2019 found that:

‘Germany could have prevented up to 4600 deaths and 300 MtCO2 cumulative emissions between 2011 and 2017. And if the country proceeds to total nuclear phaseout by 2022, it could lose the chance to prevent an additional 16,000 deaths and 1100 MtCO2 cumulative emissions.’

Back then, the Columbia authors wrote that ‘Germany can still prevent 16,000 deaths and 1100 MtCO2 emissions by 2035 by reducing coal instead of eliminating nuclear as planned’. They intend to forfeit that chance this weekend.

The shutdown wounds and galls us doubly in the nuclear industry because the German plants were run magnificently by their operators. They attained and sustained output levels beyond anything we have done in the UK, saving hundreds of millions of tonnes, probably billions of tonnes, of CO2 in the process. Indeed, the all-time list of top 10 nuclear reactors by output features six German reactors. Three were shut a year ago. Three will shut this weekend. German nuclear workers set standards of professionalism and excellence that have now been spurned and discarded by German politicians.

Those politicians replaced that professionalism with the most tragic geopolitical naivete. Perhaps with cruel irony, Nord Stream 1 starting pumping gas from Russia to Germany in 2011, the same year the nuclear phase-out was announced. Also in 2011, Nord Stream AG start examining the Nord Stream 2 expansion to pump more gas from Russia. Germany’s nuclear fleet could displace the equivalent of 34 billion cubic metres of gas per year. Certainly, it would have nearly wiped out their need to burn gas for electricity. We know where that gas came from, we know what it funded, we know what that money did. We should never forget that whenever anyone calls for the end of clean, reliable, sovereign nuclear power generation.

The lesson of this tragic, awful decision is that facts and science matter: nuclear phase-outs do not work. The countries that try them burn more coal, import more gas, and emit more carbon than those that stick with nuclear. Those are the facts, clear and incontrovertible. Nuclear energy is clean and green: that is science too.

If we believe in the fight against climate change, and the need for energy security, we will do everything, everywhere, all at once. We will not pick and choose energy sources based on prejudice, but do our utmost for a sustainable future for our children, our grandchildren, and generations to come.

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Lincoln Hill is Director of Policy and External Affairs at the Nuclear Industry Association.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.