Germany, facing an energy crisis, takes a fresh look at nuclear energy

LANDSCHUT, Germany — When Angela Merkel turned off nuclear power after Fukushima accident, she set Germany on a course to become the world’s only leading industrial power to phase out nuclear power. Instead, Europe’s economic engine planned to fuel itself by switching to renewable energy sources with cheap Russian gas.

Now, 11 years later, with Russia plays with gas supplies to Germany, her successor, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who modeled himself in Ms. Merkel’s image is looking at the possibility of overturning this snap decision.

Europe’s geopolitical calculations turned upside down war in Ukraine. This has led to an energy crisis that comes at a critical time in Germany’s and Europe’s aspirations to become global leaders in the transition to climate neutrality. Instead, if Russia turns on the taps, coal-fired power plants are across Europe, and nuclear power is getting a second look as many on the continent argue over whether to sacrifice their sacred cows.

The European Parliament recently took a widely disputed step classifying some gas and nuclear energy as “green”. In the Netherlands, gas fracking is under review. In Belgium, as in Germany, the debate has shifted to keeping nuclear plants running, something that was unthinkable just a few months ago.

Mr. Scholz admitted publicly for the first time this week that Germany’s plan to shut down its last three nuclear power plants by the end of the year is the culmination of Ms. Scholz’s speech. Merkel’s promise to renounce nuclear weapons may not be viable given the war in Ukraine.

Operation of the last three nuclear power plants in Germany after the decommissioning date in December. December 31, 2022, he said, “may make sense” given the energy crisis, the war has accelerated. He insisted that any such move would not be decided by his government, but by a series of stress tests on the German power grid to see if the power plants would be needed and could operate safely after the shutdown date.

In part, Mr. Scholz is reacting to the growing sentiment among Germans – according to recent polls that have already ended. 80 percent — that they should reassess a topic that has led to one of the most emotional and divisive debates their country has faced since reunification.

“We are having conversations that we thought we would never have to have again,” said Rosie Steinberger, a regional parliament member in the southern state of Bavaria, which is likely to need nuclear power the most if the energy shortage comes to a head. fit.

“It’s painful for all of us,” she said as she worked from her darkened office to save energy. “But we are also in the shadow of this war in Ukraine.”

This admission is probably harder for politicians like Ms. B. Steinberger than for any other German party: she is from the Greens, who now share power with Mr. Steinberger. Scholz’s Social Democrats in Berlin. The Greens have their roots not only in Germany’s environmental movement, but also in massive anti-nuclear protests, when police clashed with activists who sometimes chained themselves to the gates of nuclear plants.

Annalena Burbock, the Greens foreign minister, grew up with demonstrations like this, where people lined up in protest against nuclear plants. Even if many in her party begin to accept what seems inevitable, Ms Burbock insisted on Wednesday that she still believes the expansion of nuclear power “not an option”.

The irony of politics is that it was a lady. Merkel, who has become the personification of the “nuclear exit” of Germany. Her Christian Democrats have been longtime proponents of nuclear power, and her government has fought to extend the life of nuclear power after the previous leftist government tried to shut it down. She defended the move, arguing that nuclear power was a “transition technology” paving the way for Germany’s renewable energy system – the same language her party later used to defend the transition to gas.

But the Fukushima disaster in 2011 forced her to make a dramatic turnaround after her party suffered a disastrous defeat in regional elections by anti-nuclear Greens. The Germans, long divided over nuclear issues, opposed nuclear power, and Mrs. Merkel soon shut down seven of Germany’s 17 nuclear power plants.

She claimed that she took this step because the Fukushima accident in a high-tech country like Japan was “a turning point for the whole world.”

“It’s like the Pope suddenly advocated the use of birth control pills,” the German magazine Der Spiegel wrote at the time.

For years, despite the bewilderment of many outside of Germany, the country seemed to stick to that course. This year, when Europe imposed sanctions on Russian fossil fuels, Germany’s green energy minister appeared to be more willing to turn on coal-fired power plants than bring up nuclear power again.

mr. Scholz took a similar stance: just a few weeks ago, he was still telling reporters that there was no way to get away from nuclear power.

The chancellor now has to make a decision to leave the plants on the grounds, which many say is just as political as Ms. Wilson’s. Merkel’s actions to turn them off.

Only three power plants are still operating in Germany, which account for about 6 percent of Germany’s energy supply. For Germans, nuclear power was associated with Cold War fears that their country, at the forefront of Europe’s Iron Curtain and divided between US and Soviet-backed governments, could become the epicenter of nuclear annihilation.

Germans of that era grew up reading The Last Children of Schevenborn, a novel about the aftermath of a nuclear war. The current generation is watching the German Netflix thriller Darkness, which is set in a city living in the ominous shadow of a nuclear power plant.

Ironically, in real Germany, those who live under the white pillars of steam from the Isar-2 nuclear power plant are much more fed up with the remaining plants than many of their compatriots.

“I’ve been here for 30 years,” said Hans Königsbauer, a 67-year-old retired butcher, as he slowly tended to his flower beds, which faced a nearby plant. “Since it was built. I’m not afraid at all.”

He is not embarrassed by the fact that a comprehensive inspection of the plant has not been carried out since 2009, which opponents often call a security risk. “They do security checks every two months,” Mr. Wilson said. Koenigsbauer said. “It is safe.”

Cathy Mühlebach-Sturm, spokesperson for the environmental group BUND in the same area, said she understands why many people are puzzled by some Germans’ concerns about nuclear power. “But I look at it the other way,” she said. “I understand fear. What I can’t understand is its absence.”

Like most Bavarians, memories of 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine are burned into her mind. The disaster created a cloud of radioactive fallout that hit parts of Germany, and now the fighting around nuclear plants in Ukraine gives new strength to such memories.

She recalled how she and other parents frantically changed the sand in the children’s sandboxes and traveled hundreds of miles to buy milk from dairy farmers whose cows fed on hay harvested before the contaminated rains.

Even today, 36 years later, officials in Bavaria say that about 15 percent or more of wild boars checked after slaughter are contaminated with radioactivity.

Opponents of the expansion of nuclear power in Germany argue that, apart from the emotional resonance, the plants will have only a minimal impact on the energy crisis in Germany.

Nuclear energy is used mainly for electricity, while imported gas is used to heat German homes and for heating processes important to German industry.

“That’s just 1 percent of the shortfall we need to make up due to the lack of Russian imports,” said Simon Müller, director of Agora Energiewende, a think tank promoting the transition to renewable energy.

Yet Mr. Müller said that keeping the plants still might make sense – not for Germany, but for Europe. Since European nations often share power, nuclear power outages in France could actually be a good reason, he said, to keep nuclear power in Germany, even if it’s just a drop in the ocean of what France might need.

Unlike Germany, France gets about 70 percent of its energy from its aging nuclear fleet or reactors, more than any other country. Government now renationalization of its electricity giant and will spend 51.7 billion euros to build up to 14 next-generation reactors by 2035.

“The big untold headline is that we have a second crisis in Europe,” he said. “This is a crisis in the electricity supply system, and this is a crisis caused by the failure of nuclear power plants in France.”

Alexander Putz, the mayor of Landshut, recalls going to anti-nuclear protests as a teenager wearing the famous smiling sun sticker that read, “Nuclear power? No, thanks.”

The former engineer said today that his understanding of the safety of modern nuclear power plants has relieved him of the worry of living just a short drive from the Isar-2 plant, located on the banks of the Isar River.

He feels the absurdity of the debate, given that the sharing of electricity in Europe could most likely mean buying electricity produced in nuclear power plants from neighboring countries such as France or the Czech Republic, where a disaster could harm the Germans no less than an accident in their own country.

“I completely understand people and I would rather we didn’t have to do this,” he said of extending the life of Germany’s own reactors. “We’re just in a crisis.”