Two months ago, Kerstin Andreae, the head of the German industry association for power and water supplies, told Reuters that the country’s phase-out of nuclear power by the end of this year was “final.” But like many things that seemed settled a few months ago, it’s not so sure anymore.
In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the raft of international sanctions that have followed, Germany is now reconsidering its decision to shut down its last three nuclear plants so it is less reliant on Russian-supplied natural gas to create electricity, according to the country’s economy minister as reported by Reuters. However, he added that “the preliminary examination has shown that it does not help us.”
Nuclear energy has a long and complicated history both in Germany and in the debate around the best way to achieve a zero emissions economy globally. Germany has had a strong anti-nuclear contingent for decades that contends it can achieve zero emissions without nuclear. In the past decade, the country’s share of electricity from nuclear has been halved, from 22.2 percent in 2010 to 11 percent in 2020, roughly the same share of the country’s electricity market (15.3 percent) as natural gas. But about 32 percent of the natural gas comes from Russia, meaning any dip or cutoff of that supply needs to be made up elsewhere in the short term. This has the country reconsidering shutting down the three remaining nuclear plants which provide a combined 4 GW to the grid.
The willingness to at least consider keeping the nuclear plants is one of many aspects of German society that has been upended following the Russian invasion of Ukraine as the country revisits its entire foreign policy. Also over the weekend, the country increased its military spending and shipment of arms to Ukraine, moves that until a few weeks ago would have been virtually unthinkable in a country with strong pacifist leanings following World War II.
However, in the case of keeping the nuclear plants running, Germany’s energy minister, Robert Habeck, told German broadcaster ARD it’s not so simple.
“Because the preparations for the shutdowns are already so far advanced that the nuclear power plants could only continue to operate under the highest safety concerns and possibly with fuel supplies that have not yet been secured," Habeck said. Therefore, extending the plants’ lives may not be possible for the next winter season when natural gas supplies are most crucial.
These foreign policy decisions regarding the war in Ukraine are being made against the backdrop of a new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that says there is a very brief window of time to avoid the worst consequences from failing to achieve a zero-emissions world.