Support for nuclear power has surged in Germany as the government ponders how to keep the lights and heating on this winter while meeting demand from industry, despite likely vastly reduced imports of Russian gas.
Up to 82% of Germans do not want the government to shut down the country’s three remaining reactors at Emsland, Isar 2 and Neckarwestheim 2 at the end of 2022, with 41% saying they want to keep nuclear power in the long-term, according to a poll commissioned by ARD-DeutschlandTrend. Only 15% were in favour of the remaining reactors being shut down at the end of this year, as it is currently planned.
Also, 61% of people supporting the anti-nuclear Greens, which are part of the governing coalition, said they now supported keeping atomic energy online at least temporarily. Just 31% of Green supporters want to close the reactors in December.
Crucially, 71% of those polled said they approved of the government’s policy of making Germany independent of Russian energy imports.
In another poll, conducted by the online survey institute Civey on behalf of Der Spiegel, 78% of respondents backed the continued operation of the last three German reactors until the summer of 2023. Even among the supporters of the Greens, there was a narrow majority for this.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in early August suggested that it could make sense to keep the reactors open beyond 2022 and to extend their working life.
The opposition Christian Democrats are calling for an extension of the three reactors. That could be done even without buying new fuel rods, with existing supplies sufficient in the short-term.
Nuclear power accounted for 13.3% of German electricity supply in 2021. This was generated by six reactors, of which three were switched off at the end of 2021. The remaining three — Emsland, Isar and Neckarwestheim — were due to cease operation at the end of 2022.
The country now faces gas shortages as its supplies from Russian have fallen. Nord Stream 1 supplied gas fell to 20% of capacity at the end of July, because Russia claims it cannot import a turbine from Germany due to sanctions, while Nord Stream 2 is still lying idle.
Germany’s gas reserves are currently about 65% full, and the government wants to raise this to 95%, alongside other EU members, by November 1. Berlin is not sure how it will meet this target and has urged the country to use less gas as part of a package of gas-saving measures. The European Union has agreed a plan to reduce gas consumption by 15%.
In July, the environment ministry, which oversees regulation, said it would look again at the possibility of keeping the reactors open after dismissing the idea in March shortly after the start of the war in Ukraine. It aims to carry out a stress test to see if the reactors would be needed.
Ministry spokeswoman Christiane Hoffmann said that any decision to keep the reactors open would be technical, rather than ideological.
Germany had planned to replace nuclear with renewables, imports and possibly fossil fuels.
However, the gas crisis has led to the possibility of coal making a return. The Mehrum power plant has moved from cold reserve to active generation and is now feeding power to the grid after the government on July 14 allowed the re-opening of the coal plant.
Any return of coal would have a significant effect on the country’s CO2 emissions, whose effects on climate change have been vividly shown by the current record temperatures in Germany.
If coal is used in the short term to replace nuclear, this could discharge an extra 70mn tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere in 2022 alone, warned Berlin University of Applied Sciences HTW Professor Volker Quaschning. For comparison: Germany’s total 2021 emissions were 762mn tonnes of CO2-equivalent.
Germany’s decision to restart coal plants and, perhaps, not shut down its nuclear plants, are politically painful, but might be needed in light of Europe’s gas and energy crisis. Living without Russian gas will still not be possible, however.
The Green Party, which runs the federal environment and economy ministries, emerged from the anti-nuclear power movement, and has a long-held opposition to atomic energy. However, the need to maintain the governing coalition means that the Greens have to examine the issue closely.
Making the issue a technical and scientific problem to be recommended by experts, rather than as a political choice, could take the edge of any decision to keep open the nuclear plants.