LANDSHUT, Germany – When Angela Merkel disconnected nuclear power after the collapse of Fukushima, she put Germany on the right track to becoming the only industrial nation to abandon atomic power in the world. Europe’s economic engine was instead planning to fuel itself through a transition to renewables with cheap Russian gas.
Now, 11 years later, as Russia gambles with Germany’s gas supply, her successor, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who modeled himself after Mrs Merkel, is considering the possibility of backtracking on this momentous decision.
Europe’s geopolitical calculations have been turned upside down by the war in Ukraine. It has created an energy crisis that comes at a critical time for Germany’s and Europe’s ambitions to become world leaders in the transition to climate neutrality. Instead, as Russia tightens the taps, coal-fired power plants are reignited across Europe and nuclear power is given a second look as many on the continent argue over whether to their sacred cows must be sacrificed.
The European Parliament recently took the highly contested decision to classify certain gas and nuclear energies as “green”. In the Netherlands, gas fracking needs to be reconsidered. In Belgium, as in Germany, the debate has turned to the maintenance of nuclear power plants, something unthinkable just a few months ago.
This week, Mr. Scholz publicly acknowledged for the first time that Germany’s plan to shut down its last three nuclear power plants by the end of the year — the culmination of Mrs. Merkel’s nuclear-free pledge — could no longer be viable given the war in Ukraine.
Operating the last three nuclear power plants in Germany past their dismantling date of December 31, 2022, he said, “may make sense” given the energy crisis the war has precipitated. Such a decision, he insisted, would not be decided by his government but rather by a series of stress tests on the German electricity system to see if the plants would be needed and if they could be safely operated after their date. closing.
In part, Mr Scholz is responding to a growing sense among Germans – according to recent polls, now over 80% – that they need to re-evaluate the topic that has led to some of the most emotional and contentious debates facing their country. has since been faced. reunification.
“We are having conversations that we thought we would never have to have again,” said Rosi Steinberger, a member of the regional parliament in the southern state of Bavaria, which will most likely need nuclear power the most in case of power shortage. pass.
“It’s painful for all of us,” she said, as she worked in her darkened office to save electricity. “But we are also under the shadow of this war in Ukraine.”
Europe is moving away from fossil fuels
The European Union has started a transition to greener forms of energy. But financial and geopolitical considerations could complicate efforts.
This admission is probably more difficult for politicians like Ms. Steinberger than for those of any other German party: she is from the Greens who now share power with Mr. Scholz’s Social Democrats in Berlin. The Greens have their roots not only in Germany’s environmental movement, but also in its grassroots anti-nuclear protests, where police clashed with activists, who sometimes chained themselves to the gates of nuclear power plants.
Annalena Baerbock, the Green Foreign Minister, grew up attending such protests, where human chains formed in protest against nuclear power plants. Even as many in her party are beginning to come to terms with what seems inevitable, Ms Baerbock insisted on Wednesday that she still believed an expansion of nuclear power was “not an option”.
It is a political irony that it was Ms. Merkel who became the poster boy for Germany’s “nuclear exit”. His Christian Democrats had long been proponents of nuclear power, and his government fought to extend the life of nuclear power after a previous leftist government sought to shut it down. She defended the move by saying atomic power was the “transitional technology” paving the way for a renewable energy system in Germany – the same language her party later used to defend the switch to gas.
But the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in 2011 forced her to turn back, after her party suffered a catastrophic defeat in regional elections to the Greens, who campaigned against nuclear power. Germans, long divided on nuclear issues, had turned against atomic energy, and Merkel quickly shut down seven of Germany’s 17 nuclear power plants.
She argued that she made the decision because the Fukushima disaster, in a high-tech country like Japan, was a “turning point for the whole world”.
“It is as if the pope suddenly advocated the use of the contraceptive pill,” wrote the German magazine Der Spiegel at the time.
For years, despite the perplexity of many people outside Germany, the country seemed to be on this path. This year, as Europe began its sanctions against Russian fossil fuels, Germany’s green energy minister seemed more willing to fire up carbon-intensive coal-fired power plants than reopen the issue of nuclear power. .
Mr. Scholz took a similar line – only a few weeks ago he was still telling reporters that any reversal of the nuclear phase-out was not possible.
Now the chancellor faces a decision to keep the factories going that many say is as political as Mrs Merkel’s decision to shut them down.
There are only three plants still in operation in Germany, which account for around 6% of Germany’s energy supply. For the Germans, nuclear power has been shrouded in Cold War fears that their nation, on the front line of Europe’s Iron Curtain and divided between US and Soviet-backed governments, could become the zero point of nuclear annihilation.
Germans of that time grew up reading “The Last Children of Schewenborn”, a novel about the consequences of nuclear war. Today’s generation watches the German Netflix thriller “Dark,” which is set in a town that lives in the eerie shadow of a nuclear power plant.
Ironically, in real-world Germany, those who live under the white smoke columns of the Isar 2 nuclear power plant are much more jaded about the remaining plants than many of their compatriots.
“I’ve been here for 30 years,” said Hans Königsbauer, a 67-year-old retired butcher, who slowly tends to his flowerbeds that face the nearby factory. “Since they built it. I’m not afraid at all.
He is unfazed by the fact that the plant has not had a full inspection since 2009 – which opponents commonly cite as a safety risk. “They do safety inspections every two months,” Königsbauer said. “It’s certain.”
Kathy Mühlebach-Sturm, a representative of the environmental group BUND in the same district, said she understood why many people were intrigued by some Germans’ concerns about nuclear power. “But I see it the other way around,” she said. “I understand the fear. What I don’t understand is his absence.
Like most Bavarians, the memories of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in Ukraine in 1986 are etched in his memory. The disaster has created a cloud of radioactive fallout that has descended on parts of Germany – and now the fighting around nuclear power plants in Ukraine is giving those memories new power.
She recalled how she and other parents frantically changed sand in 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, the Bavarian authorities claim that around 15% or more of wild boars inspected after slaughter are contaminated with radioactivity.
Opponents of the expansion of nuclear power in Germany say that in addition to emotional resonance, the plants will have minimal impact on Germany’s energy crisis.
Nuclear power is used primarily for electricity, while gas imports are used to heat German homes and for heating processes essential to German industry.
“This is only 1% of the shortfall that we have to compensate for due to the lack of Russian imports,” said Simon Müller, director of Agora Energiewende, a think tank promoting the transition to renewable energy.
Still, Mr Müller said keeping the factories could still make sense – not for Germany, but for Europe. Because European states often share electricity, nuclear power plant failures in France could actually become a valid reason, he said, to keep nuclear power in Germany, even if it would only be a drop in the bucket of what France might need.
Unlike Germany, France draws about 70% of its energy from its nuclear fleet or its aging reactors, more than any other country. The government is in the process of renationalising its electricity giant and will spend 51.7 billion euros to build up to 14 next-generation reactors by 2035.
“The big unreleased headline is that we have a second crisis in Europe,” he said. “It’s a crisis of the electricity system, and it’s a crisis caused by the failure of nuclear power plants in France.”
Alexander Putz, the mayor of Landshut, remembers going to anti-nuclear demonstrations as a teenager, wearing the famous sticker of a smiling sun that read: “Nuclear? No thanks.”
Today, the former engineer said his understanding of the safety of modern nuclear power plants left him no worries about living a short drive from the Isar 2 plant, located on the banks of the river Izar.
He feels a sense of absurdity in the debate, given that sharing electricity in Europe could most likely mean buying nuclear-generated electricity from neighboring countries like France or the Czech Republic, where a disaster could hurt the Germans as much as an accident in their own country.
“I completely understand people, and I would prefer that we didn’t have to,” he said of Germany’s reactor life extension. “It’s just that we are in crisis.”