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So Far So Good for Germany's Nuclear Phase-Out, Despite Dire Predictions

Clean Break: Chapter 4 in the story of Germany's switch to renewables

By Osha Gray Davidson

Nov 16, 2012
(Page 2 of 3 )
Anti-nuclear protest in Freiburg, Germany, in March 2011.

On March 11, 2011, an earthquake followed by a tsunami struck central Japan's west coast. The massive wave swamped the six nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, triggering three core meltdowns. Germany's long-simmering unease about nuclear power bubbled to the surface and exploded. Antinuclear demonstrators again took to the streets by the tens of thousands, chanting, "Shut them down!"

Less than a week into the Fukushima crisis, Merkel stunned the nation by withdrawing the licensing extensions and temporarily closing seven of Germany's oldest nuclear plants. The restart of an eighth plant, which was offline for refueling, was delayed.

But the real bombshell was still to come.

On May 30, Merkel held a press conference in the Chancellery. Flanked by members of her cabinet and wearing one of her trademark red power jackets, she announced that she was making the temporary closures permanent. What's more, she continued, the most industrialized nation in Europe, and the world's fourth-largest economy, would permanently close all nine of its remaining nuclear power plants by 2022.

Merkel, whose support for the Energiewende had always been tepid, had suddenly pinned Germany's future entirely on renewable energy. It was, wrote one journalist, "as if the pope were suddenly advocating the use of birth control pills."

Merkel had been a prominent researcher in quantum chemistry before entering politics and was well aware of the enormity of the task that lay ahead. But, she told the assembled reporters, this was a historic opportunity for Germany to step forward on the world stage: "We believe that we can show those countries who decide to abandon nuclear power—or not to start using it—how it is possible to achieve growth, creating jobs and economic prosperity while shifting the energy supply toward renewable energies."

The nuclear industry and its supporters pounced on Merkel's decision. They predicted blackouts on a scale Germany hadn't experienced since World War II and skyrocketing electricity prices that would wreck the nation's heavy manufacturing sector, the bedrock of the German economy. They warned that Germany would cease to be an energy exporter and be forced to import electricity from, of all places, French nuclear power plants. Utilities would have to burn more coal to make up for the lost nuclear power, they said, pumping huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The British weekly The Economist branded Merkel's action "a lunatic gamble."

More than a year and a half later, however, those dire predictions haven't materialized.

There have been no blackouts since Merkel's announcement. On the contrary, Germany's grid, which was already the most reliable in Europe, experienced a total of just 15 minutes and 31 seconds of brownouts in 2011, an improvement over 2010. (The comparable figure for the United States is measured in hours.) The wholesale price of electricity has gone down, not up. The electricity-intensive German manufacturing sector is still thriving. And Germany finished 2011 as a net exporter of energy, while also cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 2 percent.

How did the critics get it so wrong? According to many German energy experts, the naysayers couldn't envision how the new energy economy would work. Rainer Baake, who brokered the original plan to phase out nuclear, said the critics didn't understand that while a single source of renewable energy can't match the constant power of a coal or nuclear plant, a mix of renewable sources can achieve a similar result. For example, solar power produces a predictable range of energy during the day, while winds blow primarily at night. Getting the mix right isn't easy. But so far, Baake argued, Germany's experience suggests that it is possible.

Even some Energiewende supporters, however, criticized Merkel's decision to immediately close several of the nuclear plants. They felt the closures should have been phased out gradually, as the 2000 legislation would have done.

Some analysts suggested that Germany's carbon emissions—which declined by 2 percent in 2011—could have dropped even further if Merkel hadn't acted so precipitously. Even with the Merkel shutdown, however, Germany's old coal plants are being decommissioned faster than new ones—which were ordered years before the Fukushima disaster—are coming online.

Still, more needs to be done to make a smooth transition to a renewable energy economy. The antiquated power system must become more flexible and nimble, able to respond quickly to demand, something the old system wasn't designed to do, Rainer Baake stressed. For all practical purposes, coal and nuclear power have only two settings: off and on. Supporters of the Energiewende argue that this limitation is another reason to stop using coal and nuclear. "The Big Four were right about one thing," Baake admitted. "You have to choose between the old system and the new one. And we have chosen renewables."

In the United States, experts in the fight against climate change are divided on whether or not Germany should have excluded nuclear on its path to a renewable energy future. Author and activist Bill McKibben, who has written about the issue for two decades, believe Germany took the right path. Leaving aside all of the other well-known problems of nuclear power (waste disposal, vulnerability to terrorist attacks, catastrophic meltdowns), McKibben argues that nuclear is simply too expensive to provide more than a small share of the world's energy needs.

"Nuclear plants are frightening," McKibben wrote in his 2010 book, Eaarth, "in part because new ones spill so much red ink."

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