Nuclear Is Germany’s Best Path Out of the Energy Crisis

December 07, 2022
The Bundestag and Bundesrat have voted to keep Germany’s three remaining nuclear power plants operational until mid-April 2023 to help bridge the country’s energy shortage.

This extension is a sensible step in light of the energy crisis precipitated by Russia’s war in Ukraine. Nuclear power has long been a sore point for the German public and political leadership, especially for the Green Party, which strongly opposes keeping the plants open beyond the new April deadline. But public attitudes toward nuclear power may be shifting. An August “ARD-DeutschlandTREND”poll by infratest dimap shows some 41 percent of Germans support extending the plants’ operations, while a further 41 percent support long-term use of the plants. Germany’s action is timely. Despite progress in filling natural gas storage, Europe faces an enormous challenge in moving away from Russian-supplied natural gas. In her call this autumn for the European Commission to develop plans to address the energy crisis, President Ursula von der Leyen said that Russia’s efforts to manipulate energy prices and sabotage energy infrastructure meant the country lost any claim to being a responsible energy supplier.

Europe, along with Germany, has reduced its usage of Russian natural gas (from 40 percent to approximately 9 percent of Europe’s imports) by sourcing liquefied natural gas (LNG) from elsewhere and expanding renewables such as wind and solar. Nevertheless, current LNG supply is limited, and Europe lacks the needed import infrastructure to avoid delivery delays. Before Russia’s February invasion, it supplied approximately 150 billion cubic meters (bcm) per year of natural gas to Europe. By comparison, the current US LNG export capacity is approximately 125 bcm per year. While natural gas prices have recently fallen, they remain significantly higher than before the crisis, and futures markets anticipate higher natural gas prices in the months ahead. Europe will face even greater challenges in 2023 when it must fill its natural gas storage with significantly fewer supplies from Russia.

Notwithstanding this crisis, European countries are committed to moving away from fossil fuels. In 2021, German electricity sources comprised 33 percent wind and solar, 29.6 percent coal (hard and lignite), 13.3 percent nuclear, 10.4 percent natural gas, 8.8 percent biomass, and 4 percent hydropower.  In the first half of 2022, Germany’s overall energy mix comprised 46.4 percent renewables (including wind and solar), 29.4 percent coal (hard and lignite), 14.6 percent natural gas, and 5.6 percent nuclear. In the near term, increasing natural gas supply and expanding the wind and solar capacity necessary for Germany to meet its climate goals will be difficult. While Germany is investing substantially in these sectors, the variability of wind and solar does not necessarily correspond to periods of peak demand. It requires substantial storage capacity. Nuclear power, by contrast, is well suited to continuous operation to meet base load power requirements. Furthermore, deploying wind and solar at sufficient scale demands increased supplies of minerals, many of which are controlled by China. This could shift dependence from one major non-democratic actor to another. 

Given these circumstances, nuclear energy must be part of any conversation about energy security and climate change proposals. Many multilateral institutions agree. The International Energy Agency (IEA) stated that limiting global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius will require doubling nuclear power generation by mid-century. The UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reached a similar conclusion. The European Commission determined nuclear power to be an environmentally sustainable activity as part of its Taxonomy Complementary Delegated Act on climate change mitigation. Germany’s neighbors—France, Poland, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic—are committed to nuclear power, including developing new plants. The Biden administration, too, supports nuclear power as a clean energy source and is pursuing investments in the United States while extending support for US nuclear power technologies overseas. German sensitivities and fears concerning nuclear power, however, run deep and cannot be easily set aside. After painting nuclear energy as a grave threat, Berlin’s three-party governing coalition faces serious headwinds in convincing the German public that greater nuclear energy investment is needed in the medium to long term. This holds especially true for the Green Party, which was born from the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Nevertheless, the immediacy of the interlocking energy and climate crises may require Germany to revisit the issue and recognize nuclear as the lesser evil to help pave the way toward a green transition.    

Persuading the German public to reconsider nuclear energy requires reassessing risks and benefits in today’s environment rather than dwelling on past accidents and talking points. Deaths from nuclear power are significantly lower than those linked to fossil fuels and comparable to those linked to wind and solar. Nuclear power, like many technologies, has evolved since the 1970s and 1980s, when German plants were constructed. Newer, large reactors offer advances in safety and efficiency while developing technologies, such as small modular reactors, offer enhanced safety and lower costs. Nuclear power is also a useful way to produce green hydrogen, which requires cost-effective, carbon-free electricity to generate. Methods for storing short- to medium-term nuclear waste are well established. Newer reactor designs, such as a project supported by Bill Gates, may even recover uranium from spent fuel. A German team developed a dual fluid reactor, which offers further safety enhancements. Notably, renewable technologies, such as solar, present health risks by producing waste including carcinogenic cadmium, which rainwater can leach out.

Russia’s war in Ukraine painfully demonstrates that overreliance on any one energy supplier poses significant economic risks. Even if Germany avoids problems with domestic heating this winter, the crisis is already impacting industrial sectors in which firms, such as BASF, are reducing their production of fertilizer and engineering plastics. A more evenly balanced energy mix can better hedge Europe’s largest economy against external developments. As Europe’s economic engine, Germany needs a new public debate on nuclear power as part of a sustainable, clean energy mix.

For more on Germany and nuclear energy, see "The Source of Germany's Nuclear Aversion" by GMF's Sudha David-Wilp.