Lessons in Nuclear Power Policy
Updated: Jul 2, 2022
By Will Steger
Germany, already one of the world's biggest importers of non-renewable energy, intends to completely phase out nuclear power by the end of 2022. The German public is largely opposed to nuclear energy, especially since the fateful Fukushima disaster of 2011 highlighted the potential dangers of nuclear energy. Even as Germany moves toward renewable sources, it still relies heavily on non-renewable sources. But while Germany's increase in renewable energy may be good for the planet, it has left them in a potentially tricky foreign policy position. Ideologically and economically split between NATO allies and Russian energy imports, Germany was forced to pick a side. German energy consumption is bolstered greatly by imports from Russia, and so Germany continues to tiptoe a tricky and delicate line: should it prioritize its political allies or its energy? But there is a simple, short-term solution that can fix Germany’s energy woes: bringing nuclear power back online.
As Germany’s allies look to non-renewable sources of power to meet energy needs, such as the United States holding talks with Venezuela, Germany has faced increasing stress over its energy consumption. Following Russian demands that natural gas imports be paid for in rubles rather than US dollars or Euros, Germany has been forced to brace for severe cuts to the nation’s energy consumption. Robert Habeck, the Vice-Chancellor of Germany, told reporters that, “every kilowatt-hour counts.” Gas rations are reportedly on the table if energy supplies decrease to critical levels, and manufacturing is first in line to be on the receiving end of budget cuts.
The spiking natural gas prices in Germany may not affect consumers immediately, but are nonetheless a major threat to the German economy. There are ways, however, for Germany to mend its potential crisis: a return to nuclear power. While Germany has again ruled out nuclear power as a way to solve its crisis, this move presents more issues than solutions. Even though Germany has argued that it faces legal challenges and practical issues to revamping nuclear power production, these arguments came from a time before Germany was forced to consider gas rationing.
Germany has a long history of anti-nuclear movements, dating back to protests in response to the Three Mile Island Incident in the United States which ultimately culminated in a 2011 decision to begin the closure of the country’s nuclear plants. The decision, which was aimed at reducing carbon emissions and increasing safety, was voted for by over 80 percent of the German parliament.
But nuclear power is historically clean–in 2020, nuclear energy accounted for over 50 percent of America’s carbon-free electricity. Unlike natural gas, nuclear power generation does not produce greenhouse gasses. Also unlike natural gasses (and even renewable sources like wind and solar energy), nuclear plants operate at full capacity almost 100 percent of the time, making nuclear power one of the most efficient sources of energy. Questions about the safety of nuclear energy also played a role in Germany’s anti-nuclear movements. The Three Mile Island Incident, Chernobyl, and Fukushima are all extremely well-known nuclear crises, and all three of these informed Germany’s decision. While the incidents themselves are well-documented, their long-term effects have been no more severe than reliance on natural gasses. The projected long-term risks of greenhouse gas emissions are just as destructive for the environment as a short-term nuclear disaster.
While nuclear power may appear to be scary or dangerous, it is not. It is not any more destructive than traditional non-renewable energy sources, and it is not nearly as likely to harm the environment as continued greenhouse gas emissions will. Perhaps it truly is too late for Germany to make a return to nuclear energy. The state practicality issues that Germany faces may, in fact, be far too severe to overcome the nation’s current energy crisis. But Germany’s woes can serve as an important lesson to other countries: do not write off nuclear energy. Had Germany continued to operate its nuclear power plants, it is possible (but not guaranteed by any means) that the energy crisis they face could be somewhat mitigated. While nuclear power is not a “get out of jail free” card, it is an option that could alleviate energy stress on a country. Western countries like Canada and Australia generally find themselves in good standing with both being two of the world’s largest uranium-producing countries. Relatively easy access to a clean, safe, and reliable energy source is nothing to scoff at, especially when the alternative may be to rely on Russia for gas imports. Turning to nuclear power may not be sustainable in the long run due to a finite source of fuel, but it is a temporary solution and bandaid, of sorts, to a much larger problem. Being forced to rely on potentially hostile foreign countries in order to meet energy needs is a compromising position, but it is one that can be avoided.