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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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Why Germany is Choosing Natural Gas Over Nuclear Power

  • Germany's anti-nuclear stance is based on historical factors rather than current geopolitical realities.
  • Germany's decision to phase out nuclear energy has led to concerns about energy security and higher energy prices.
  • Despite public regret over the nuclear shutdown, Germany's unique energy transition path faces challenges due to the slow and costly nature of new nuclear plant development.
Germany

The world is experiencing a nuclear renaissance. Uranium prices are soaring as the world snaps up nuclear fuel, public favor for nuclear power is at a 10-year high in the United States, Russia is busily expanding its own nuclear energy empire in emerging economies in Africa, and even Japan is moving back to the carbon-free energy source 13 years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. All told, approximately 60 new nuclear reactors are currently under construction around the globe, and another 110 are in planning stages.

But there’s one major detractor to the new nuclear revolution. A year ago, Germany took its last three nuclear power plants offline. And it seems pretty clear that they won’t ever be bringing them back on. Germany’s staunch anti-nuclear stance is a surprising one in many ways. The European nation is an outspoken proponent of the green energy transition, but has opted to take away one of its most reliable forms of carbon-free energy production as a matter of higher priority than transitioning away from coal – the dirtiest fossil fuel. 

Germany’s move to eliminate the last vestiges of its nuclear energy sector also comes at a time when the nation’s energy security is a cause for some concern. Critics had been warming for years that Europe – and Germany in particular – were dangerously reliant on Russian energy imports to keep the lights on. And those warnings proved to be correct when the continent was plunged into an energy crisis due to the energy sanctions brought against Russia in the wake of Moscow’s illegal invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The German economy and energy sector was hit hard, as the country was reliant on Russia for a whopping 50% of its natural gas supplies at the time of the invasion.

But instead of extending the life of its nuclear sector in the interest of low-emissions energy security, Germany has chosen to spend billions on its own new natural gas plants, augmented by significant renewable energy expansion, and to fall back on coal when energy supplies are short. For many energy and climate experts, the move has been nothing short of baffling.

So what gives? According to a recent report from The Conversation, Germany’s stance on nuclear energy is the product of a long history rather than a grappling with current geopolitical realities. The decision to completely phase out nuclear energy production “can only be understood in the context of post-war socio-political developments in Germany, where anti-nuclearism predated the public climate discourse,” the report argues. Motivations for the vehement anti-nuclear discourse of the time included “a distrust of technocracy; ecological, environmental and safety fears; suspicions that nuclear energy could engender nuclear proliferation; and general opposition to concentrated power (especially after its extreme consolidation under the Nazi dictatorship).”

But the arguments at the time, which favored energy alternatives like solar and wind, were not actually based around concern for the climate. Instead they revolved around the decentralization and democratization of energy resources and their potential to contribute to greater self-sufficiency and citizen empowerment. It was an argument for a bottom-up rest of entrenched and autocratic power relations. Which means, to critics, that the anti-nuclear stance in Germany is rooted in a reality that no longer exists. The Cold War has given way to global warming, and new ideas and strategies are needed to meet these new existential threats. 

Now, a year after the total shutdown, more than half of Germans think that the timing of the nuclear pullout was a mistake, and industry experts say that Germans pay more for energy as a direct result of the pivot. However, even with an ideological shift and an update of political platforms, the German nuclear industry couldn’t come back online overnight. New nuclear plant development is a slow and costly endeavor, oftentimes stretching well over a decade. Starting from zero, when the threats posed by climate change as well as energy security are so urgent, makes no sense for Germany. While the rest of the world galvanizes around a nuclear energy resurgence, Germany will have to forge its own path. 

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com 

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