Nuclear power in Germany? Actually Germany got rid of nuclear power, but now the Kremlin is flexing its muscles and cutting gas supplies to the Federal Republic.
Nuclear power in Germany policy update, So will the last three German nuclear power plants remain online beyond the year, as Federal Minister of Finance Christian Lindner (FDP) suggests?
The historian Frank Uekötter, who has been dealing with the history of nuclear power for years, is not recommended.
Uekötter explains in an interview why Lindner is on the wrong track, why Nuclear power in Germany something completely different than just electricity and what mistakes could be avoided in the green energy transition.
Professor Uekötter, Nuclear power in Germany phase-out is close. In view of the current crisis, some politicians want to stick with nuclear power. Federal Minister of Finance Lindner recently called for an “unprejudiced” discussion on the future use of nuclear energy. What do you make of it?
Frank Uekötter: Christian Lindner makes it pretty easy for himself. What he is asking for is also not very helpful. You can’t just switch Nuclear power in Germany plant on and off.
Continued operation of the three Nuclear power in Germany plants still producing electricity in Germany beyond the end of the year would be quite a ride, and the construction of new reactors appears to be out of the question for the foreseeable future. On the contrary: many people don’t realize how good it is in Germany.
Because the Federal Republic has a concrete exit plan?
Exactly. Since the first red-green federal government under Gerhard Schröder there is a binding timetable for Nuclear power in Germany phase-out – in principle, for more than two decades. So in the Federal Republic we can soon draw a clean line under the topic of nuclear power.
In countries like France, United Kingdom, the USA and Japan, the question is what to do with the aging nuclear power plants , still cost a lot of time, money and nerves.
But now Russia has at least partially turned off the gas tap, Federal Minister of Economics Robert Habeck declared an alarm level of the gas emergency plan. Wouldn’t continued operation bring relief?
Gas-fired power plants can be connected to the grid flexibly as required. Nuclear power plants, on the other hand, are base load – they run best 24 hours a day.
It is no coincidence that nuclear energy came about in a time of planning euphoria, because it requires planning security at many small and large points. Nuclear power in Germany is extremely unsuitable for quick fixes. Improvisational theater is nice on stage, but it has no place in energy policy.
The three Nuclear power in Germany mentioned are no longer the youngest. Up to what age can nuclear power plants still be said to be “safe”?
That’s a good question. There are hardly any empirical values because most nuclear power plants were built in the last 50 years. What is certain is that older nuclear power plants are becoming more maintenance-intensive in order to maintain safety levels.
The decisive question is whether such investments pay off and whether the operators and politicians are willing to do so. In the USA there are now plants whose operation has been approved for 80 years. Even experts don’t know if that’s wise. In essence, we are entering the most critical phase of nuclear power of all: the number of aging nuclear power plants around the world is increasing, while public attention to the issue is dwindling.
So the use of Nuclear power in Germany is becoming a kind of niche technology?
Much points to that. Which could prove to be a big problem, because to run a Nuclear power in Germany safely and efficiently, you need competent personnel to the very end. Above all, however, a society also needs critical experts who understand something of the subject.
If proponents and critics of nuclear power exchange ideas constructively, safety can be increased. Such an exchange has enabled Germany to achieve a relatively high level of safety at its nuclear power plants since the 1970s.
While the last three Nuclear power in Germany plants are now expected to be shut down by the end of the year, other countries are planning new plants.
My personal guess is that by the middle of this century nuclear power will be far less important than it has been so far. The construction of a nuclear power plant is an extraordinary effort. It costs several billion, it needs legal certainty and technical security, and that for decades.
The nuclear consensus of 2000 between the federal government and operators was also based on the fact that the latter were no longer threatened with unpleasant surprises, such as additional safety requirements. In this way, the companies could firmly trust that the remaining lifetimes of the nuclear power plants would still bring them profits.
Experts estimate that nuclear power was quite a costly affair for Germany. However, according to your new book “Atomic Democracy. A History of Nuclear Energy in Germany”, we have benefited from it in quite unexpected ways. How exactly?
By that I mean the success story of the German democratic negotiation process in the construction and operation of nuclear power plants. Let’s look back: In the early 1970s, influential corporations such as Siemens, RWE or Veba the nuclear project, the federal government also played a role. In fact, it soon turned out that the peaceful use of nuclear power was much more expensive and complicated than expected. The projects were simply oversized. There was a protest by the citizens’ initiatives. The way out of nuclear power is proof of the functionality of democracy, which worked its way out of the mess in many small and a few medium-sized steps.
The Federal Republic was spared major incidents. That would certainly have heated up the situation.
And that makes Germany’s nuclear history special. But all the other problems that can arise with a nuclear project have not materialized in the Federal Republic either. No nuclear power plant operator has collapsed, there have been no price explosions, no power cuts.
In Great Britain, British Energy, which operated eight nuclear power plants, had to be bailed out by the government in 2002.
Exactly. In comparison, we got off lightly. But in fact a lot has happened as a result of nuclear power on the social and political level in the Federal Republic. On one side were the advocates and on the other the opponents of this type of energy generation.
In the dispute and in the discussion, both sides reacted to each other again and again, modified their ideas and goals. As a result, the hotheads on both sides could not assert themselves with their radical views, the democratic constitutional state seemed like a large cooling basin, to stay with the terminology.
In fact, the dispute over nuclear power has also written legal history. In 1985, the Federal Constitutional Court passed its landmark Brokdorf decision, which strengthened freedom of assembly. A demonstration against the construction of the nuclear power plant in Brokdorf in Schleswig-Holstein had previously been prohibited.
The Brokdorf Resolution was indeed a milestone. You see, democracy and the rule of law on the one hand prevented the overzealous from building one kiln after the other in the countryside, and on the other left-wing extremists from being able to play civil war.
In the end, the power plant builders were quite successful.
In a way, that’s true. Brokdorf, Grohnde, Kalkar or Wackersdorf – all of the protest sites against nuclear power have been built. But while in France the nuclear program was “pulled through from above” in the truest sense of the word, in the Federal Republic there was constant compulsion for negotiations between companies, politicians and groups of citizens. That was very good for us and prevented excesses.
Now there are two German experiences with nuclear power: The GDR also operated reactors, and according to the SED there should be around 20.
Just like the Federal Republic, the GDR had a fundamental experience: using nuclear power is not that easy. After the research reactor Rossendorf, the nuclear power plants Rheinsberg and Greifswald, the GDR has had it since the end of the 1970s no longer manage to connect even one new reactor to the grid.
In Greifswald there was almost a Gau in 1975, later the facility was derided as “Tschernobyl Nord”.
Oil and gas supplies from the Soviet Union were unsafe, and Nuclear power in Germany was considered the only realistic alternative to lignite. So it went on with the atomic reverie. A nuclear complex brutally exploits such weaknesses and promises all sorts of things. In addition, there was no opposition in the GDR that could have intervened. This again shows how important the protest against nuclear power was for the West.
But let’s get back to Christian Lindner in Today and the proposal to reactivate nuclear power: Would it be realistic to continue using nuclear power?
The question is rather whether it would make sense. If the use of nuclear power was actually as easy and inexpensive as once thought, the opponents would never have succeeded. Now even the current and former power plant operators in Germany are happy that this chapter is coming to an end.
But nuclear power also has no future for very practical reasons: where do you want to get the staff from? Hardly anyone would take the risk of entrusting their professional future to the uncertain nuclear power industry.
This concern already existed in the 1980s.
Right. Reunification was a stroke of luck for the West German nuclear companies, as they quickly recruited East German experts who had previously worked in East German nuclear power plants. Even if the people had a Stasi past.
At that time, the hopes associated with nuclear power were already much more sober than in the 1950s. What were the promises of this technology back then?
In the young Federal Republic, nuclear power was seen as the absolute technology of the future. The spirit of the economic boom was blowing and there was great hope for a wide range of applications for nuclear energy generation. No one could have guessed that ultimately only large power plants would be used to generate electricity. The big question is whether people would have jumped in with such enthusiasm if it had been clear back then how narrow the spectrum of use would actually be.
The big atomic dreams may not have come true, but the so-called S Germany was spared super-GAU. Why did things go so smoothly here?
At least since the nuclear disasters of Chernobyl 1986 and Fukushima In 2011 we know how difficult it is to prevent such emergencies. In Germany, awareness of the risks of nuclear power plants has increased steadily since the 1970s. There were sometimes massive technical problems in the first reactors, and several reactors had to be shut down prematurely.
This made it clear that strict rules were needed, compliance with which had to be monitored and violation of which had to be sanctioned. Such safety systems are not created all at once, but gradually – this also required a few industrial accidents. This is unfortunately the case with large-scale systems.
So the starting shot for nuclear power was still naive?
The power plant operators also had to gain practical experience first. It was a very risky learning process that involved minute details: What does a weld seam have to look like? How do you check the position of valves? We know from the history of nuclear accidents that sometimes it’s very trivial things that can lead to disaster within seconds.
Even if the nuclear debate flares up again and again, the focus of the green energy transition is on wind, sun and hydrogen. What can be learned from the early years of nuclear power for this tremendous transformation?
The experiences from the construction and dismantling of nuclear power can actually be partly converted to a regenerative energy economy. Because here, too, there are many technical issues and the profitability of green electricity generation. But social acceptance and democratic negotiation processes are just as important. A lot of very different things have to fit together, and you never know beforehand where the problem is.
So no “pushing through” the energy transition, no matter how urgent it may be in view of the climate crisis?
The disputes over the construction of new nuclear power plants in the 1980s showed one thing: If a significant part of the population does not feel affected, no effective government will help. In the 1970s, it was the country’s fathers and corporate leaders who naively assumed that they could push through the big turnaround to nuclear power with obstinacy: new jobs, cheap electricity, why should people object?
You can’t get any further with this simplicity today: the energy transition will fail against the will of the people.
In particular, the massive expansion of wind turbines is currently causing constant controversy. In view of the climate crisis, however, there is no time for lengthy negotiation processes like 40 years ago.
Of course, the intervention in the landscape with the decentralized generation of energy with solar and wind power is greater than with individual large power plants. But here, too, dialogue must be sought and at the same time communicated clearly: we simply do not have the time for endless debates. Courageous decision-making is also a cardinal democratic virtue.
How do extended nuclear power plant runtimes actually look like from a business point of view?
It is striking how little is being said about the costs. Shouldn’t a federal finance minister be a numbers person, Mr. Lindner? An extension of the operating licenses for German nuclear power plants would be economically tricky and ultimately counterproductive for the energy transition.
In energy systems, billions are invested for decades, so you need reliability. Future investors for wind power and solar systems would require risk premiums if planning security would be endangered by the snaking course in nuclear power.
You live in the UK, where nuclear power is seen more positively, at least by the government. Is the country on the wrong track with the continued use of nuclear power plants?
The British government has been aiming for new reactors for a good decade and a half. What was the result? A reactor project at Hinkley Point C in Somerset, which became so exorbitantly expensive that the chief financial officer of the operator group Électricité de France resigned and this man is by no means opposed to nuclear power. Even if everything goes smoothly, a new power plant will cost around 20 billion euros Calculate costs.
Numerous proponents of nuclear power, however, hope for a new generation of reactors, which should be smaller and cheaper.
Above all, such nuclear fantasies focus a lot of energy and attention that we could well use for the further development of proven green energies. Advocates of smaller and newer reactors are hoping for huge gains in efficiency. Leaps like we’ve seen in genetic and computer technology.
There has never been anything comparable in nuclear power and I think the probability that nuclear power will suddenly become much cheaper and easier to control in the near future is very low.
Spectacular research results are often not foreseeable in advance. Countries like France, China and the USA are therefore investing in research into mini-reactors, while the EU is focusing on nuclear fusion. Is Germany in danger of missing out on the nuclear power revolution?
If there should be reactors in 20 or 30 years that are safe and make economic sense, it will be easy to get the licenses to build such reactors in Germany. In the next ten years, however, nothing that can be approved will come out of the development work. Until then we can sit back, let the others do it and save a lot of money.