The German Nuclear Exit: An Introduction (Part 1)

Source: Bulletin of Atomic Scientists
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (BAS) has released its latest issue, The German nuclear exit, featuring five comprehensive editorials on the complexities of the German nuclear phase-out. The first of this six-part installment to be presented on PennEnergy.com offers an introductory overview from BAS deputy editor John Mecklin, and the first editorial analysis in this special issue from Alexander Glaser, a Princeton researcher and member of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board.

Part 1: The German nuclear exit: An introduction

Part 2: From Brokdorf to Fukushima: The long journey to nuclear phase-out

Part 3: The Politics of Phase-Out

Part 4: Exit economics: The relatively low cost of Germany’s nuclear phase-out

The German nuclear exit: Introduction
By John Mecklin

Shortly after the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in 2011, the German government abruptly reversed its policy on nuclear energy, deciding to phase out the country’s nuclear industry entirely by 2022. Despite the seriousness of the situation in Japan, the German decision—which shuttered eight reactors almost immediately and set staggered deadlines for nine remaining nuclear plants to close—was met with no small amount of international incredulity.

Among other things, the phase-out was widely criticized as an exercise in panic politics, and, as Alex Glaser writes in this special issue of the Bulletin—“The German nuclear exit”—the news headlines were sometimes vitriolic. (The business website Forbes.com probably won top honors in the hyperbole sweepstakes with this nuanced take: “Germany—Insane or Just Plain Stupid?”) Outside Germany, major media outlets continue to question the wisdom of the phase-out, often with emphasis on its climate change implications. At a time when greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced, the critics wonder: How could any country casually give up such a huge investment in emission-free energy?

The German decision to pursue a nuclear-free future was, however, anything but precipitous or unmindful of climate change. Because of a combination of historical and political factors, Germany has in fact been retreating from the nuclear sector for decades— and from its beginnings, the nuclear phase-out was intimately tied to what is known as the Energiewende, an aggressive, comprehensive turnabout in policy that aims for a national energy portfolio dominated by renewables.

For “The German nuclear exit,” the Bulletin asked leading experts to explore the phase-out and Energiewende along historical, political, economic, environmental, and legal dimensions and, in so doing, to give some assessment of the progress made (and likely to be made) toward a nuclear-free, renewables-heavy energy supply. What these authors report is not of course uniform or entirely positive, but they do seem to converge on a theme: In part because the nuclear phase-out and Energiewende are based on serious long-term planning and broad political consensus, the German energy experiment has met with promising early success.

In his overview article, “From Brokdorf to Fukushima: The long journey to nuclear phase-out,” Glaser, a Princeton researcher and member of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board, sets the historical context for the shutdown, reviewing the massive, civil-war-like confrontations between anti-nuclear demonstrators and police that started in the 1970s, and notes that, “because of these and subsequent developments—including the 1986 Chernobyl accident—by the 1990s, no one in German political life seriously entertained the idea of new reactor construction.”

Freie Universität Berlin politics professor Miranda Schreurs’s essay, “The politics of phase-out,” offers a surprising explanation for continuing popular support for the phase-out across the German political spectrum: The shift to renewable energy sources that accompanies the phase-out has brought financial benefits to farmers, investors, and small- and medium-sized businesses.

Marshaling a wide range of observed data and predictive economic models, Felix Matthes, research coordinator at the Institute for Applied Ecology in Berlin, reaches another unexpected conclusion: The nuclear phase-out is likely to have only a small and temporary effect on electricity prices and the overall German economy.

The phase-out also seems unlikely to come with a huge legal bill. As University of Kassel legal experts Alexander Rossnagel and Anja Hentschel explain in “The legalities of a nuclear shutdown,” during early negotiations, the government shaped the phase-out so it gave utilities time to recoup their investments in nuclear power plants, thereby undercutting their ability to successfully sue later for damages.

And finally, Lutz Mez, co-founder of Freie Universität Berlin’s Environmental Policy Research Center, presents what may be the most startling finding of all. The Energiewende that is being pursued in parallel with the German nuclear exit has reached a climate change milestone, Mez writes: “It has actually decoupled energy from economic growth, with the country’s energy supply and carbon-dioxide emissions dropping from 1990 to 2011, even as its gross domestic product rose by 36 percent.”

 “The German nuclear exit” is the first in a three-part Bulletin series that will also look at the implications of potential phase-outs of civilian nuclear power in France and the United States. The expert essays that make up this installment of the series are hardly one-sided; they are full of acknowledgements of the difficulties Germany faces as it ends its nuclear power era and strives to reach aggressive greenhouse gas-emissions targets. But the articles make clear that the nuclear phase-out and accompanying Energiewende are not—international media characterizations notwithstanding—capricious political reactions; in fact, they are carefully planned national initiatives that are based on a rational calculation that they will ultimately benefit Germany environmentally and financially.

Glaser may sum up the global import of the German energy experiment best when he writes: “Germany’s nuclear phase-out could provide a proof-of-concept, demonstrating the political and technical feasibility of abandoning a controversial high-risk technology. Germany’s nuclear phase-out, successful or not, is likely to become a game changer for nuclear energy worldwide.”


Part 1: The German nuclear exit: An introduction

Part 2: From Brokdorf to Fukushima: The long journey to nuclear phase-out

Part 3: The Politics of Phase-Out

Part 4: Exit economics: The relatively low cost of Germany’s nuclear phase-out

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