Will Germany return to nuclear power?
Berlin, Jun 23: Germany is heading into an energy crisis as Russia cuts gas supplies in retaliation for sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine.
Finance Minister Christian Lindner warned this week that the country was on the brink of a "very serious economic crisis," and the government needed to explore all avenues to plug in the gaps in the nation's energy supply.
To that end, Linder's business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), the smallest party in Berlin's governing coalition alongside the Green Party and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), have called to postpone Germany's nuclear energy phaseout. After several shutdowns in 2021, Germany currently still has three nuclear power stations running to provide 11% of the country's electricity. They are all set to be switched off by the end of this year.
Germany's opposition to nuclear power
The use of nuclear energy as a "green" alternative to fossil fuels is controversial in Germany. The Green Party has argued for decades that the environmental hazards of disposing of nuclear waste vastly outnumbered the benefits.
When they came to power in a coalition government under SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in 1998, they pushed successfully for the phaseout of nuclear energy. The subsequent conservative government under the center-right Christian Democrat Chancellor Angela Merkel first rolled back the phaseout, but the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011 turned the tide again and Merkel pushed her party towards the phaseout after all.
The CDU is now the largest opposition party in Germany and has been demanding the nuclear phaseout be called off. "It is technically and legally possible" for the three remaining reactors to keep on operating beyond the end of this year, said CDU chairman Friedrich Merz on Tuesday.
He was contradicting Chancellor Olaf Scholz of the SPD who had argued it would be too hard to source nuclear rods in time. Scholz said that "no one has provided me with a feasible plan," to quickly increase the output of Germany's three remaining nuclear plants — which as of now provide only 11% of the country's electricity.
The Branchenverband Kernenergie, an umbrella organization for nuclear energy businesses in Germany, told Müncher Merkur newspaper that an extension was indeed possible, but called for quick decision-making: "The power plants are in the process of shutting down. The longer you wait, the more difficult it will be to start them up again."
According to Christian von Hirschhausen, an expert in energy and infrastructure at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) Chancellor Scholz has the most scientifically sound grasp of the situation.
Bringing nuclear energy back online was technically and legally "impossible," von Hirschhausen told DW. There was no way to revert the decommissioning process in the next 18 months, he said, due to the time it takes to order, deliver, and install equipment as well as enriched uranium.
"They would also need to implement a new set of safety standards and checks," von Hirschhausen added, to replace those that have not been carried out in years due to the phaseout, and new laws to govern the power plantsˈ use.
The gas crunch
As it was winding down its use of nuclear power over the past decade, Germany's reliance on Russian energy sources was ratcheted up. Almost all of the country's heavy industry is reliant on natural gas, as are about half of German homes for their source of heating.
Early this year 65% of natural gas in Germany came from Russia. Now, that has dropped to below 40%. In 2021, about 53% of Germany's coal needed for power and industrial production was imported from Russia, which is to be reduced to zero after an EU-wide ban takes effect in August.
In order to head off an energy crisis, Berlin is looking to fill up its gas reserves. They are, which are now only 60% full, from the current 60% to at least 80% by October and to total capacity before the winter.
This plan has left politicians scrambling to secure new import partners for oil and gas, speeding up the expansion of solar and wind energy, as well as reluctantly extending the lifespan of the country's coal plants, despite promises to phase out coal by 2030.
Many worry, however, that all this may not be enough, and have been looking even further afield for new sources of energy. FDP lawmaker Torsten Herbst and Bavaria's center-right state premier Markus Söder were among the first to suggest Berlin lift its ban on fracking, a method of extracting shale gas that is popular in the United States but highly controversial for the amount of methane it leaks into the groundwater.
Green Party Economy and Climate Minister Robert Habeck, remains opposed to nuclear energy and to fracking and finds it hard to advocate for something as destructive to the climate as coal.
But increasing the use of coal, von Hirschhausen said, "is just a temporary measure. It makes sense if we want to build up reserves...so that there aren't major shortages in the energy supply."
In an interview with public broadcaster ZDF on Tuesday, Habeck vowed that the government's ambitious plan to completely exit coal in the next eight years was still on track.
The coalition is set to debate ways to avert a potentially disastrous lack of energy supply in the next two weeks, with an eye to presenting a new plan at the beginning of July.