top of page

Germany and Nuclear Scepticism, One Year On.

Author: Edward Smith

Germany and Nuclear

In climate conscious circles, the long running question of what role nuclear power will play in carbon neutral economies has hung for decades. On the one hand of this ongoing debate, there is an increasingly popular sentiment that the risks of nuclear power are overstated and that its virtually carbon neutral power production should play a major role in new developments. On the other side of the debate, there is a similar sentiment of distrust and fear towards nuclear power and its history of accidents, disasters, and links to the production of nuclear weapons.


Early last year, the last major nuclear plants in Germany were shut down, with Isar plant in the south east, and Emsland in the north west being amongst the last to go. This development was considered a landmark in the anti-nuclear movement. In prior generations, Germany was a leading global power in the deployment of nuclear energy. This change and how it has affected the nation’s energy output and the resources it relies on make for a valuable window into the factors affecting modern nuclear power.


The Federal Office for the Safety of Nuclear Waste stated that the push to denuclearise was driven by a desire to reduce nuclear power’s impact on the environment and stop the production of toxic waste. The government also believed that this came from a belief that the risks of “catastrophic consequences” from past nuclear disasters outweighed the potential benefits of using it as a power source.


To beat its new energy deficit, the German Government had two primary solutions in its planning stage before implementing renewables on a large scale. This was in the form of Russian gas and German coal. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine however, this plan was altered to primarily be coal based. Renewable sources also rose to meet the gap, particularly wind and solar farms.


Following this, according to a story by Agora, a German decarbonisation institute, Germany’s CO2 production from 2021 to 2022 saw the rate at which emissions were dropping off decrease before emissions then fell off to record lows in 2023 as the planned phasing out of coal power occurred.


This of course begs the question of what role the phasing out of nuclear power played in this carbon emission drop off, and whether it has had a positive effect on the environment. The London School of Economics substantiates the commonly held idea that nuclear power produces much less carbon than gas or coal, putting out at most 50 grams per kilowatt hour, compared to gas’ 450 and coal’s 1,050. They therefore classified them as a leading low carbon energy source. In this, the institute claimed they should be used as a “baseload power”, meaning that it should be used to meet basic demand, while renewable energy sources should build off this to meet peaks in demand. This would be especially viable, they suggested, during the transition period away from non-renewables, only for fully renewable sources of energy to take over entirely down the line. In short, it’s more than likely that keeping the stations online while just replacing coal stations at a higher rate with renewables would have been more beneficial.


Meanwhile, the concerns around the handling and disposal of nuclear waste seem to be less pressing than otherwise presented. Nuclear waste in the modern day is disposed of by being sealed, usually in large underground systems or in concrete lined drums on carefully maintained sites. While a seemingly inelegant solution, it is, as the World Nuclear Association put it, a “technically proven” solution, with low maintenance costs and due to its relative simplicity, few points where it can break down. On top of this, geological disposal, that being a new method based on burying nuclear waste in artificial cave systems, is proving to be a promising new sphere of development.


Germany and Nuclear

Similarly, other concerns with the power production method prove less damaging than expected on closer inspection. The ‘Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ analysed the potential risk of catastrophic failure in nuclear stations like Chernobyl, Fukushima, or Long Island and found it to be both low, and declining, with the number of serious accidents below predictions made previously.


Additionally, new generation reactors designed in the late nineties, and then later in the 2010’s, in response to the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters respectively, have been built on newer philosophies of how to contain accidents. The crux of these systems, it’s claimed, is to embrace the idea that accidents inevitably will occur under the “normal accidents” theory of operating complex machinery and systems. This was a theory by sociologist Charles Perrow that explained that when complex systems need constant human maintenance, mistakes will inevitably occur, causing breakdowns in those systems. Many Nuclear engineers have taken this into consideration, and it is a widely considered an important part of designing new reactors. This largely means substituting some preventative measures for the idea of containing any accidents that do occur before they become a serious incident.


In the context of Germany and its ongoing steps towards green energy, nuclear power has been caught in between two arguments as to the role it should play. On the one hand, there is a view that nuclear power should not be relied on as a substitute for fossil fuels as renewable energy sources advance and become more viable year on year. On the other hand is the argument that while nuclear power doesn’t serve a necessary role in green development, it does serve a role as a substitute to non-renewables as they are phased out, which Germany’s technical challenges following the change showed.

 

----------

Edward Smith is a professional journalist with a wide variety of experience and skills covering numerous topics. Writing for The Conference Corner, Edward has an interest in bringing forward important and informative details about the climate and new technologies into the public eye.





Bibliography


bottom of page