Germany has shut down its last three nuclear power plants, and some climate scientists are aghast

16 April 2023, Baden-Württemberg, Neckarwestheim: The Neckarwestheim nuclear power plant. The era of commercial power generation with nuclear power plants in Germany came to an end on Saturday with the separation of the Isar 2, Neckarwestheim and Emsland nuclear power plants from the power grid.
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As of Sunday, April 16, Germany is no longer producing any electricity from nuclear power plants.

Closure of the Emsland, Isar II, and Neckarwestheim II nuclear power plants in Germany was expected. The country announced plans phase out nuclear power 2011. In the fall of 2022, with the Ukraine war constraining access to energy especially in Europe, Germany decided to keep these existing nuclear reactors operating for an additional few months to bolster supplies.

“This was a highly anticipated action. The German government extend the lifetimes of these plants for a few months, but never planned beyond that,” David Victor, a professor of innovation and public policy at UC San Diego, told CNBC.

Responses to the news ranged from aghast that Germany would shut down a clean source of energy production while global response to anthropogenic climate change continues to be insufficient, to celebratory that Germany will avoid any nuclear accidents such as those that have happened in other parts of the world.

‘The whole thing is incomprehensible’

A collection of esteemed scientists, including two Nobel Laureates and professors from the likes of MIT and Columbia, made a last-minute plea to keep the German nuclear reactors operating in an open letter published on April 14 on the nuclear advocacy group’s website, RePlaneteers.

“In view of the threat that climate change poses to life on our planet and the obvious energy crisis in which Germany and Europe find themselves due to the unavailability of Russian natural gas, we call on you to continue operating the last remaining German nuclear power plants,” the letter states.

The Emsland, Isar II and Neckarwestheim II nuclear power plants provided more than 10 million German households with electricity, the open letter states. That’s a quarter of the population.

“This is hugely disappointing, when a secure low carbon 24/7 source of energy such as nuclear was available and could have continued operation for another 40 years,” Henry Preston, spokesperson for the World Nuclear Association, told CNBC. “Germany’s nuclear industry has been world class. All three of those reactors shutdown at the weekend performed extremely well,” Preston told CNBC.

16 April 2023, Lower Saxony, Lingen: View of the defunct cooling tower of the Emsland nuclear power plant. With the separation of the Isar 2, Neckarwestheim and Emsland nuclear power plants from the power grid, the era of commercial power generation with nuclear power plants in Germany came to an end on Saturday.
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Even as the reactors shut down, some segments of nuclear industrial processes will continue to operate in Germany. “Germany’s nuclear sector will continue to be first-class in the wider nuclear supply chain in areas such as fuel fabrication and decommissioning,” Preston told CNBC.

While the open letter did not succeed in keeping the nuclear reactors open, it does surface a critical reason why nuclear power has been part of global energy conversations recently, after a more generational lull in the construction of nuclear power plants: Climate change.

Generating electricity with nuclear reactors does not create any greenhouse gasses. As global climate change response efforts continue to fall short, nuclear energy is getting renewed consideration.

“Obviously many people in the nuclear industry are disappointed that the government that cares a lot about climate change is shutting massive sources of Zero Carbon electric power,” Victor told CNBC.

This is what Hans von Storch, a climate researcher at the Institute for Coastal Research in Geesthacht, Germany, and a signatory of the aforementioned letter, told CNBC.

“While a legitimate decision, it is not a wise decision,” Storch told CNBC. “This out phasing of nuclear, with existing plants,  leads to an increase of greenhouse gas emissions in Germany, even though according to another political decision, the fast decarbonization should have priority,” Storch said.

“For me, as a climate scientist, the whole thing is incomprehensible,” Storch told CNBC.

Anti-nuclear movement supporters gather to celebrate the shuttering of Germany’s last nuclear power plants on April 15, 2023 in Munich, Germany. Emsland, Neckarwestheim 2 and Isar 2 are Germany’s last three operating nuclear power plants and are scheduled to cease operation tonight. Their closure was originally scheduled for December 31 of 2022, though Germany’s government coalition extended their operation due to the turbulent energy market resulting from Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine. The shuttering of the plants marks a historic chapter in German history and is being celebrated by Germany’s decades-old, grassroots anti-nuclear movement.
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Fear of accidents and a focus on renewables

The German government says it is making Germany safer by closing down the nuclear reactors.

“The nuclear phase-out makes Germany safer and avoids additional high-level radioactive waste. The risks of nuclear power are ultimately unmanageable. No insurance in the world covers the potentially catastrophic extent of damage from a nuclear accident,” a spokesperson for the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection in Germany told CNBC.

On June 30, 2011, “the nuclear phase-out law was passed with a broad, non-partisan majority,” the German government spokesperson told CNBC.

Volker Quaschning, a professor of renewable energy at the Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft Berlin, supports Germany closing its nuclear reactors because of the risk of an accident.

“Nuclear energy is a risky technology. During the Chernobyl reactor accident, Germany was hit by radioactive fallout. A reactor accident in Germany would make large parts of the country uninhabitable. In the course of global uncertainties, the risks for nuclear energy are also increasing,” Quaschning told CNBC.

Also, managing with the radioactive waste that comes from a nuclear power plant is “still unsolved in Germany,” Quaschning told CNBC. “No one in Germany wants a repository for highly radioactive waste near them.”

Instead, Germany says it is focused on building out its wind and solar energy production. By 2030, Germany aims to generate 80 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources, like wind and solar. “We are now putting the policies in place for this and adapting the necessary legislation,” the German government spokesperson told CNBC.

Turning off the nuclear reactors opens the doors for renewables to be the future of energy in Germany, Niklas Höhne, a professor the mitigation of greenhouse gases at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, told CNBC.

“In the German context, the phase out of nuclear energy is good for the climate in the long-term. It provides investment certainty for renewable energy, renewables will be much faster, cheaper and safer than expansion of nuclear energy,” Höhne told CNBC.

Nuclear energy is also often more expensive than wind and solar power, Quaschning said.

“There are no longer any real advantages with nuclear energy,” Quaschning told CNBC.

“Nuclear power plants are a hindrance to the energy transition. They are not able to run in stop-and-go mode and cannot really compensate for power fluctuations that arise when using solar and wind energy.
With Germany looking to expand solar and wind power very rapidly over the next few years, now is a good time to shut down nuclear reactors to make way for renewable energy,” Quaschning said.