17/08/2021

Nuclear options

Ranking topics: Sources of electricity: nuclear power

Ten years ago, after a tsunami hit the Fukushima reactor in northern Japan, causing a nuclear disaster, Germany decided to phase out its 12 nuclear power stations. Within months, the first plants were closed. At the end of 2022 the fuel rods for the last three will be pulled out for the last time.

Germany wants to be carbon neutral by 2045. The European Union is aiming for net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050. But can Europe meet its goals if its biggest economy has abjured nuclear power? European countries that produce nuclear power emit consistently lower levels of carbon dioxide than those that do not (see right-hand chart). Between 2000 and 2019, Germany’s emissions per person were, on average, 43% higher than those of countries with nuclear power. This is mainly because it still relies heavily on fossil fuels for electricity and heating. Other countries, such as Denmark and Iceland, have managed to reduce emissions without using nuclear power—but they both benefit from windy shorelines where wind turbines whir more powerfully.

Most Germans supported the decision in 2011 and many still do. In its manifesto for the general election in September, the Green party, which The Economist forecasts is likely to win at least 14.5% of the seats in the Bundestag, pledged to lobby other European countries to abandon nuclear power. In July it was reported that Germany had gathered support from Austria, Denmark, Luxembourg and Spain in opposing the EU’s plans to classify nuclear power as “green” for investment purposes (the EU has yet to make a decision).

Most of Germany’s neighbours are not listening (see left-hand chart). Of the 17 European countries producing nuclear energy, only Britain has plans to close any plants soon, and it is still building new ones. Although Switzerland has banned new construction, it will allow existing facilities to operate “as long as they are safe”. Poland, which is heavily reliant on coal, will start building its first nuclear power plant in 2026. In March the leaders of the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia wrote to the European Commission to complain that their countries’ development of nuclear energy was “contested by a number of Member States”.

With German elections looming and the country recovering from recent catastrophic floods, global warming will be high on the public agenda. Well-regulated nuclear power is safe, and provides a stable source of emissions-free electricity. Yet some politicians are reluctant to discuss it. The most that Armin Laschet, the leader of the ruling Christian Democratic Union who may well be the next chancellor, has said is that the country should have ditched coal first and nuclear second. The far-right Alternative for Germany is the only party proposing to bring nuclear power back. The idea of a nuclear reversal remains too toxic for most of Germany’s politicians.

This article is from our Graphic detail section.