Germany’s Anti-Nuclear Dilemma

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by Victoria Haykin

Germany’s efforts to eradicate national reliance on nuclear power have resulted in increased dependence on fossil fuels. The country has done little to re-evaluate its energy policy despite the political and environmental contention surrounding its increased dependence on coal. In November 2014, Germany’s Energy Minister, Barbara Hendricks, acknowledged that without curtailing its reliance on coal, Germany would never meet its 2020 targets, but declared that she will not be reducing them. These targets, set in accordance with Germany’s commitment to the policy of Energiewende, or energy transition, aim to slash Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent compared to 1990 levels.

As the largest European Union Member State, it is unsurprising that Germany ranks as Europe’s main producer of carbon dioxide. However with emissions soaring to 760 million tonnes in 2013, it would appear that size alone cannot account for Germany’s ongoing inability to maintain suitable emission levels. This raised serious doubts regarding the viability of the nuclear phase-out initiative that started in 2011.

The German anti-nuclear movement has a long history. Although the movement currently focuses on the potentially hazardous effects of nuclear waste, it started off in response to fear regarding the safety of nuclear power generation and financial concerns surrounding waste disposal back in 1950s and 1960s. In subsequent decades, anti-nuclear demonstrations were held throughout the country, but it was the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 that solidified in the German consciousness a strong and enduring desire to move away from nuclear power generation altogether.

The second nuclear disaster at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant in 2011, brought about by a tsunami generated in the wake of Tōhoku Earthquake, provided the anti-nuclear movement with fresh impetus. A protest 60,000 strong, held in March 2011, formed a human chain stretching 45 kilometers from Stuttgart to the Neckerwestheim Power Plant. More than 100,000 others countrywide also protested Germany’s reliance on nuclear power generation, which, at that time, accounted for nearly 20 percent of the national electricity supply.

Two months post-Fukishima, Angela Merkel, formerly a proponent of nuclear power production, announced Germany’s official move towards shutting down all seventeen of the country’s nuclear power plants by 2022. The aim was to speed up research in the area of renewable energy technology. However, the problem is that these technologies have failed to pick up the slack left in the wake of the nuclear phase-out initiative. As an extremely cheap substitute, coal has filled this gap, causing emissions to skyrocket beyond 1990 levels in December 2014.

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Despite hailing themselves as the “climate champions” of the EU, seven of Germany’s nine coal-powered thermal plants are amongst the highest in Europe in terms of overall carbon dioxide pollution. Moreover, Germany currently relies more heavily on coal for energy generation than any other EU country. The threat to environmental stability is exacerbated by the fact that many of these coal plants are outdated and have been in operation since the 1960s and 1970s. In 2011, Germany’s “Green Revolution” promoted the shutdown of all nuclear power plants that had been in use prior to 1980. This effort now seems to have been rendered null and void as it has necessitated the use of coal-powered plants that should themselves be decommissioned.

A report issued by the Climate Action Network of Europe in July 2014, entitled “Europe’s Dirty 30,” clearly detailed the environmental effects of Germany’s switch from nuclear power to coal. Coal-powered plants are the largest emitters of mercury air pollution in Europe. Once again, Germany’s seven largest coal plants lead the way in mercury emissions, accounting for 60 percent of total energy sector emissions in 2012. Furthermore, nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide emitted as a by-product of burning coal are both significant causes of the leading chronic ailments in Europe: cardiovascular/respiratory diseases and lung cancer.

According to statistics released in 2009 by the European Environment Agency (EEA), the operation of coal-powered plants in Europe results altogether in the loss of 196,200 life-years or, in other words, 18,200 premature deaths per year. It goes without saying that, in addition to the environmental and health risks, the use of coal results in billions of dollars of additional health costs. In fact, the thirty dirtiest coal plants in Europe are responsible for an estimated 14 percent of total industrial health-case costs within the EU.

Although it should be acknowledged that Germany has succeeded in significantly expanding their reliance on renewable energy sources, the market share of renewables in 2013 still remained around a quarter. At a meeting of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Berlin last November, Klaus Töpfer, former German Minister of the Environment and current head of the sustainability institute IASS, stated that Germany’s policy initiative to phase out nuclear power, without causing further environmental harm, had unequivocally “not been achieved.” Töpfer had also, back in 2011, encouraged Germany’s Ethics Commission on Energy to re-evaluate the reasons behind the federal government’s nuclear phase-out initiative.

Since November 2014, Germany has been debating the shut-down of several of its coal plants. So far, the process has been fraught with difficulty. Angela Merkel maintains that cutting out coal power altogether will decimate the economy, eradicating thousands of jobs and compromising Germany’s energy security. Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel has declared, “We can’t simultaneously get out of nuclear and coal.” Without any foreseeable consensus, it seems likely that Germany’s anti-nuclear dilemma may persist for years to come.

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