Germany enters final phase of nuclear switch-off

Climate minister says energy supplies are safe as three more reactors are closed

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Germany will take the penultimate step on its journey away from nuclear power this week when it switches off three of its last six reactors.

Ministers hailed the looming end of what they called a “highly problematic technology” as they confirmed that the Brokdorf, Grohnde and Gundremmingen C plants would be taken off the power grid by December 31.

Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck assured Germans there would be no energy shortages, despite Europe’s largest economy disconnecting nuclear plants amid an energy squeeze on the continent.

Mr Habeck, who is responsible for leading a clean energy revolution in his role as economy and climate change minister, said switching to greener power sources was central to sustainable growth.

The three plants closing this week were opened in the 1980s, when protests against nuclear energy spurred the rise of the Green party in what was then West Germany. The remaining three reactors will be switched off next year.

Between them, the six plants accounted for 14 per cent of Germany’s domestic electricity generation in the third quarter of 2021. Another slice of electricity was imported from nuclear power-heavy France.

Long sceptical of nuclear power, Germany was spooked into scrapping it by the 2011 meltdown in Fukushima, Japan. One government-commissioned poll this year showed 76 per cent of Germans supported the decision.

With allies including Austria and Belgium, it wants to exclude nuclear power from a contentious list of climate-friendly investments being negotiated by the EU. France, which gets most of its electricity from its 56 nuclear reactors, is leading the opposite camp.

“Germany is drawing a line under a highly problematic technology,” said Environment Minister Steffi Lemke of this week’s shutdowns. “The nuclear exit makes our country safer and helps to prevent radioactive waste.”

Oliver Krischer, a junior minister in Mr Habeck’s so-called super ministry, highlighted the long-lasting threat from waste generated by nuclear plants.

“If the Neanderthals had used them, we’d still be looking after their waste now,” he said.

Germany leads a coalition of countries who oppose nuclear power's classification as green by the EU. EPA

Critics say the nuclear exit makes Germany more reliant on coal, which is regarded as the most damaging fossil fuel and provided almost a third of Germany’s electricity in the third quarter.

It makes Germany one of the biggest coal users in Europe, along with industry-heavy countries in Eastern Europe such as Poland and the Czech Republic.

Protests erupted in the autumn over plans to expand an open-pit coal mine in western Germany at a time when governments are under pressure to go green.

The government in Berlin hopes to bring forward the end of coal-fired power stations to 2030, raising the stakes for Mr Habeck’s renewable energy shake-up.

Plans include installing solar panels on every newly-built roof and using 2 per cent of Germany’s territory for wind farms.

While gas prices in Europe have dropped over the past week, they are still more than five times higher than the average of the previous five years. The spike has raised concern about the EU’s reliance on imports from Russia.

Germany’s new government has yet to take a firm stance on the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Russia. The pipeline, which is not operational yet, is opposed by the US, as it fears Moscow could use it for political leverage.

Updated: December 29, 2021, 11:29 AM