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Technology: Mixed reactions as Germany shuts, phases out remaining nuclear plants

Photo: DW

*The German Government has shut Emsland, Neckarwestheim II and Isar II, the country’s three remaining nuclear reactors, as RWE, operator of the power plants, affirms commitment to shutdown of technology touted as a clean and reliable alternative to fossil fuels

Gbenga Kayode | ConsumerConnect

Though a hitherto prominent slogan found on the bumper of many a German car, the European country Saturday, April 16, 2023, shut its three remaining nuclear power plants in line with a long-planned transition toward renewable energy.

It was gathered the shutdown of Emsland, Neckarwestheim II and Isar II shortly before midnight drew cheers from anti-nuclear campaigners outside the three reactors and at rallies in Berlin and Munich, in Germany.

Inside the plants, staff held more sombre ceremonies to mark the occasion, reports AP.

Decades of anti-nuclear protests in Germany, stoked by disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, had put pressure on successive governments to end the use of a technology that critics had  contended is unsafe and unsustainable in the country.

However, with other industrialised countries of the world, such as the United States (US), Japan, China, France and Britain, counting on nuclear energy to replace planet-warming fossil fuels, Germany’s decision to stop using both has drawn skepticism at home and abroad, as well as unsuccessful last-minute calls to halt the decision, report stated.

Defenders of atomic energy say fossil fuels should be phased out first as part of global efforts at curbing climate change.

The reportedly argued that  that nuclear power produces far fewer greenhouse gas emissions and is safe, if properly managed.

As energy prices soared 2022, due to the Russian war in Ukraine, some members of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government got cold feet about closing the nuclear plants as planned for December 31 last year.

In a compromise, Scholz was said to have agreed to a one-time extension of the deadline, but insisted that the final countdown of the nuclear plants would happen April 15.

It did happen Saturday.

An ‘absolute mistaken decision’?

On the flip side, Markus Soeder, Bavaria’s conservative governor, who backed the original deadline set way back 2011 when Chancellor Angela Merkel was Germany’s leader, this week called the shutdown “an absolute mistaken decision.”

Soeder said: “While many countries in the world are even expanding nuclear power, Germany is doing the opposite.

“We need every possible form of energy.

“Otherwise, we risk higher electricity prices and businesses moving away.”

Moreover, advocates of nuclear power worldwide have slammed the German shutdown, aware that the move by Europe’s biggest economy could deal a blow to a technology they tout as a clean and reliable alternative to fossil fuels.

Dozens of scientists, including James Hansen, a former NASA climate expert credited with drawing public attention to global warming 1988, Friday, April 14, sent a letter to Scholz.

Hansen had urged him to keep the nuclear plants running in Germany.

Going forward

Sequel to shutdown of the nuclear power facilities at the weekend, the German Government has acknowledged that, in the short term, the country will have to rely more heavily on polluting coal and natural gas to meet its energy needs.

The country is also taking steps to massively ramp up electricity production from solar and wind, report noted.

Germany to be carbon neutral by 2045: Official

The country as well aims to be carbon neutral by 2045.

However, such officials, including Environment Minister Steffi Lemke, say the idea of a nuclear renaissance is a myth, citing data showing that atomic energy’s share of global electricity production is shrinking.

At a recent press conference in Berlin, Lemke disclosed that new nuclear plants in Europe, such as Hinkley Point C in Britain, had faced significant delays and cost overruns.

Funds used to maintain aging reactors or build new ones would be better spent on installing cheap renewables, she said.

Energy experts, such as Claudia Kemfert of the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin say the 5 percent share of Germany’s electricity currently coming from nuclear can be easily replaced without risking blackouts.

The northwestern town of Lingen, home to the Emsland plant, plans to become a hub for hydrogen production using electricity generated from North Sea wind farms, Mayor Dieter Krone told the Associated Press in a recent interview.

The power plant’s operator, RWE, made clear that it is committed to the shutdown.

It was learnt the company yet runs some of Europe’s dirtiest coal-fired power plants.

It recently pushed through the destruction of a village for a mine expansion as part of a plan to increase short-term production before ending coal use by 2030.

Several Germany’s nuclear power plants will still be undergoing costly dismantling by then, according to report.

The question of what to do with highly radioactive material accumulated in the 62 years since the country’s first reactor started operating remains unsolved.

Efforts to find a final home for hundreds of containers of toxic waste have faced fierce resistance from local groups and officials, including Soeder, the Bavarian Governor.

The energy challenge

It is also noted that “nuclear power supplied electricity for three generations, but its legacy remains dangerous for 30,000 generations,” said Lemke, who also pointed to previously unconsidered risks, such as the targeting of civilian atomic facilities during conflicts.

Besides, finding a place to safely store spent nuclear fuel is a problem that other nations using the technology face, including the United States.

Still, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has said that nuclear power will “play a critical role in America’s clean energy future.”

She, in the past week, welcomed Japan’s decision to restart several of its reactors.

With debate raging again, in Germany about whether the shutdown is a good idea, the top official in charge of nuclear safety at the Environment Ministry, Gerrit Niehaus, was asked by a reporter to sum up in a single sentence what lessons should be learned from the country’s brief atomic era thus far.

Niehaus said: “You need to think things through to the end.”

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