Germans split as last three nuclear power stations go off grid
On one side of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate on Saturday, there was partying: anti-atomic activists celebrated victory in a battle that had lasted 60 years.
On the other side of the Gate, there were protests, as demonstrators marched against the closure of Germany’s three remaining nuclear power stations.By midnight on Saturday, Isar 2, Emsland and Neckarwestheim 2 had all gone offline.
At the Brandenburg Gate, where the Wall once divided Cold War Berlin, nuclear energy is an ideological fault-line that splits the country. It is an issue that is emotionally charged like few others. And particularly now as war in Europe again looms large.Both sides accuse each other of irrational ideology.
Conservative commentators and politicians say the country is in thrall to Green Party dogma, that scraps domestic nuclear power at a time when cutting Russian energy means rising prices. They accuse the government of increasing reliance on fossil fuels instead of using nuclear, which has lower emissions.
“It’s a black day for climate protection in Germany,” said Jens Spahn, conservative CDU MP, on RTL television earlier this week.Greens and left-wingers argue that it is illogical to cling to nuclear power, which is more expensive than wind or solar. The government argues that keeping the three ageing atomic power stations online would need huge investment — funds that should go into renewable energy sources.
It is odd for the CDU to suddenly champion climate protection, say Green Party MPs, given that the conservatives regularly block measures to expand renewable energy infrastructure.
Ironically, given the CDU’s current fight for nuclear, it was a conservative-led government under Angela Merkel that decided to phase out atomic power after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Her decision was popular with voters, coming on the back of widespread anti-nuclear sentiment sparked by the catastrophe. Cynics suggest that upcoming key regional elections may have influenced her decision.
Today, Germany gets almost half of its electricity from renewables – 44% in 2022, according to the Federal Statistical Office – and just 6% from atomic power. Green economy minister Robert Habeck predicts that 80% of Germany’s electricity will be renewable by 2030 and has pushed through laws to make it quicker and easier to build solar and wind farms.But over the last year, the proportion of renewables has stagnated while CO2 emissions have increased, as Germany has been forced to import liquefied natural gas (LNG) and use more coal instead of Russian gas. This has sparked even some Green voters and anti-nuclear activists to support temporarily extending the lifespan of the last three nuclear power stations.
In an article published in Friday’s edition of the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, Green Party environment minister Steffi Lemke wrote that Germany was shutting down nuclear because catastrophic accidents can never be ruled out, “whether it be through human error like Chernobyl, natural disasters like Fukushima… or attacks, as Ukraine is suffering because of Russia’s war”.
Germany does not need nuclear, she argues, because renewables are safer, more sustainable, better for the climate and make more economic sense.
Despite predictions of shortages and blackouts, Germany produces more energy than it needs, exporting energy to France over the summer, note Green Party leaders pointedly, where nuclear power stations could not operate because of extreme weather.
Voters are divided. According to this week’s ARD-DeutschlandTrend poll, 59% of Germans are against shutting down atomic energy, with only 34% in favour. Support for nuclear is strongest amongst older and conservative voters.
But more detailed questioning reveals a nuanced picture. In a YouGov poll from earlier this week, 65% supported keeping the three remaining nuclear power stations running for now. But only 33% wanted Germany to keep nuclear power indefinitely. In other words, pull the plug – but just not quite yet.On Thursday, the conservative leader of Bavaria Markus Söder visited Isar 2, and called for Germany to not only keep the last three reactors online, but also to reactivate old power stations – including one shut down in Bavaria by him.
Meanwhile Christian Lindner, finance minister and head of the liberal FDP party – which is in Olaf Scholz’ three-way governing coalition – this week again rebelled against the government’s official line and called for the three power stations to stay active in reserve. Both leaders know that at this stage such ideas are technologically, legally and financially implausible. But looking at the polls they see political capital in the issue, whether the reactors are actually there or not.
The Green Party, which has its roots in the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s, will be celebrating this weekend. But the party realises that their political opponents are ready to blame them for any future energy shortfalls, price hikes or missed CO2 targets. German atomic power will be gone. But politically, nuclear remains explosive.
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