April marked the beginning of a new era for Germany. The third week of April was the first without any domestically produced nuclear energy that entered Germany’s energy mix.
Since Sunday, 15th April, the remaining three nuclear power plants located in Bavaria, Baden-Wuerttemberg and Lower Saxony have been switched off for good. This was the final step in the nuclear phase-out strategy which began over a decade ago in 2011, as a governmental response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.
However, decommissioning these power plants was not exactly set in stone, as only a few months ago the final switch-off was still heavily debated. Germany was in a dire situation, going into a potentially cold and long winter without the usual gas supply from Russia via the gas pipelines Nord Stream 1 and 2. Any energy that could be produced closer to home seemed to be a good start and an alternative to the rising costs of imported energy on the European wholesale energy market. Whether the reactors would still pass security checks and where the required fuel rods should come from were only minor questions thrown into the bigger moral debate about Germany’s position towards nuclear energy.
Is Germany officially nuclear-free? German supporters of the anti-nuclear movement who are waving banners of the complacently smiling red sun on the yellow background with the logo “Nuclear Power? No Thanks” might consider this a victory. However, to say that no more nuclear energy is coming out of German sockets, as a TV moderator proclaimed after the switch-off on Saturday night, seems to be an exaggeration.
Germany is and has been reliant on imported electricity and gas for the last years, particularly since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. With the end of Germany’s domestic source of nuclear energy, this gap needs to be filled. Although renewable energy made up almost 50 percent of the daily mix in 2022, sources such as photovoltaic and wind power are not able to maintain a consistent supply, especially not in the cold winter months. The solution: either burning more domestic coal, which is hardly the environmentally-friendly answer but has been nonetheless suggested by the Green party, or importing from abroad.
Germany imports energy from neighbouring countries such as the Netherlands, Poland and France, which is the country with the highest percentage of nuclear energy as part of its overall electricity generation worldwide. It is therefore highly likely that some of that imported energy will stem from a nuclear power plant afterall. So long as this power plant stands on French and not German soil, few seem to object.
How do German people feel about this end of an era? According to one survey, 53 per cent of people support what leader of the CSU and minister president of Bavaria Markus Söder suggests – a continuation of the Bavarian power plant under state coordination. While this is unlikely to happen due to legislative obstacles, it showcases a deep divide in the population. Twelve years on, the question about domestic nuclear energy production is more polarising than it was at the beginning of the debate in 2011.