I’ve seen far too many people in the English-speaking world attack Germany repeatedly for its closure of nuclear power plants, for a variety of reasons. So as a public service, I would like to explain why Germany is like this. This may be relevant to other related issues concerning the politics of the green transition, including transportation and urbanism.
Electricity in Germany
There’s easy-to-search data on the electricity mix in Germany by source on Clean Energy Wire and the Working Group on Energy Balance (AGEB); on the latter site, Stromdaten gives the overall mix. In 2019, 40% of German power generation was renewable, and 12% was nuclear. The renewable share of German power consumption was slightly higher, 42.6% – Germany is a net exporter of electricity. The biggest contributor to renewable power is wind, but solar has recently been growing as well. Hydro power counts with renewable energy here, but is not a major factor, as German population density is high, unlike in Canada, Sweden, or Norway.
Over the decade, there was a large reduction in nuclear power generation. Nuclear power generation is down by slightly less than half, and a full phaseout is expected by the end of 2022. This has created a lot of criticism from pro-nuclear advocates as well as from trolls who enjoy attacking Germany, the green movement, and German greens specifically. Here is one typical example, a 2013 Telegraph article warning German economic growth might fall and saying utilities were turning to coal. But coal production fell in absolute numbers even more than nuclear power, down over the decade from 42% to 28%.
Why is Germany like this?
It’s still worth asking, why did Germany cut nuclear production, where it could have instead reduced coal production even further?
The answer can be found in the following Cold War joke:
Q. What is a tactical nuclear weapon?
A. Anything that lands on Germany.
West Germany built some nuclear plants in the 1960s and 70s, as did many other developed countries, like the US and France. But it faced New Left protests early and often, and this has to be understood in the context of the association between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. In Japan, such popular opposition happened even earlier, going back to the 1950s; the state kept building nuclear plants anyway, but slowly, without anything like France’s rapid buildup in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis.
Nuclear power advocates get frustrated when people compare nuclear power with nuclear weapons, but peaceful use of nuclear power always involved this association, often by supporters too. In the US, physicists proposed using nuclear bombs for infrastructure purposes. In the 1960s there were plans to use nuclear bombs to built I-40 as well as straighten the Southern Transcon; eventually I-40 was built by conventional means, and the Southern Transcon was not straightened. This was always a solution looking for a problem – the atomic age was the hallmark of modernity, so why not use nukes for more purposes than just war?
In France, too, the reasoning for the buildup of nuclear energy in the 1980s was justified on national security grounds – “in France we have no oil, we have ideas.” Germany and Japan, which do not have the global superpower pretensions of France, did not have the same justification to expand nuclear power at the same time.
Nuclear power and the modern greens: costs
On the eve of the Fukushima plant closures of 2011, German electricity was 23% nuclear, French electricity more than 70%. The origin of this difference is not about modern greens but about whether the national consensus viewed nuclear weapons positively or negatively in the 1970s and 80s, at which time nobody thought climate change was a serious problem.
The 2010s and 20s are not the 1970s and 80s; today, people do understand just how important climate change is as a global environmental problem. The green movement has adapted, if not as radically as pro-nuclear advocates would like. The German environmentalists I talk to either don’t care about nuclear power or are in favor of keeping it around. I tried to explain to the Breakthrough Institute’s Ted Nordhaus that at the big Fridays for Future protest on the 20th of September, there were hundreds of anti-coal power sign and just one anti-nuclear sign, held by people visibly older than most of the millennial and postmillennial attendees; he replied, “Greta is anti-nuclear.”
What is true is that nobody except Breakthrough calls for the construction of new nuclear power. But nuclear power is expensive with modern safety standards, while the costs of renewable energy are falling, those of onshore wind in Germany already lower than those of any other source, even coal. A 2009-11 analysis claims onshore wind costs $1.75-2.40 per watt to install (source, PDF-p. 25). A 2018 comparison within Europe finds a range of €1-1.50/W for onshore wind and perhaps €1.50-2.50 for offshore wind (source, PDF-p. 24), with noticeable correlation between a country’s wind power costs per watt and its urban subway tunneling costs per kilometer. Breakthrough has a cost comparison of nuclear power plant construction, where South Korea, which they praise for its low-cost construction, builds plants for about $2.50/W after PPP adjustment.
The cost comparison suggests strongly that people interested in green energy should be fine with retaining existing nuclear power in the medium term but not call for new capacity – it’s more expensive than renewables.
There are people who are against nuclear power categorically. There are people who want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There is a clash between these two propositions, but it is not a total war. Before Fukushima, German power was 23% nuclear, and nuclear power costs were already higher than wind power costs, so decarbonizing the German electricity sector meant incentivizing more renewable power, not building more nuclear power. Since there was no point in dying on the nuclear hill – it was too small a share of power generation to be worth defending as in France, and too expensive to be worth expanding – the NIMBYs got their wish and nuclear power is being phased out early. Nonetheless, the majority of German electricity is generated by carbon-free sources, and the growth in renewable power has grown its scale to make it economic.
In France, the calculation is different. After Fukushima, there was no chance of a phaseout, only plans to reduce the share of electricity coming from nuclear power from the 70s to 50%. But the Macron administration has extended the lifespan of existing plants and pushed back plans for plant closure. In France, the nuclear power share is high enough because of decisions made in the 1970s and 80s that defending what exists is important, and thus the state can postpone mass installation of solar and wind energy until costs fall further. But in Germany, with an imminent need to install renewable power anyway, the political compromise went in another direction.
The formation of a de facto anti-nuclear political consensus has to be seen in this context. By the time the political system got serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, roughly in the 2000s and 10s, the costs of renewables were more favorable than those of nuclear power. Thus, to people who do distinguish nuclear power from nuclear weapons, think the plants are safe, and harbor no NIMBY opposition to new construction, nuclear power was an acceptable political sacrifice. It wouldn’t be the first choice to close these plants, but as a second choice combined with extensive renewable construction, it was fine.
It’s important to think in terms of goals – decarbonization, improving public health, reducing housing costs, etc. Breaking down these goals further – decarbonizing the power sector, reducing air pollution, etc. – can be desirable for specific solutions. But the goals are still too important for activists to be wedded to a specific solution and convert it from a means to an end. If the relative costs of different solutions change, it’s important to recognize this fact and switch support to the cheaper solution.