June 23. 2024. 12:28

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Au revoir, Germany’s ‘Atomkraftwerke’

On April 15, Germany will shut down its last remaining nuclear power plants, marking the end of the country’s more than 60-year foray into nuclear power and a long-time era of Franco-German cooperation.

In 1961, Germany’s first nuclear power plant, a small trial plant named Kahl, began supplying power to the grid. This was followed by years of rapid expansion, but a comprehensive counter-culture developed, culminating in the founding of Germany’s Green party.

The Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 sounded the death knell for nuclear power in Germany, with the largest anti-nuclear demonstration ever held bringing together some 250,000 people. On May 30, the German government led by conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel announced a plan to shut all nuclear reactors by 2022.

On April 15, the last remaining three reactors will be shut down. “The nuclear power plants now will sooner or later be dismantled,” Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck told RND on April 9.

For months, the plants had been operating in emergency mode as fuel rods were squeezed for any remaining energy, and Europe’s energy crisis had delayed their planned shutdown at the end of 2022 by a few months.

Germany’s last nuclear reactors fed 70 gigawatt-hours a day into the grid, covering about 3 to 7% of German electricity demand depending on the time of day.

Nuclear power has long been a topic that ignites public debate in Germany, sparking criticism from liberals and conservatives alike, while green politicians tend to welcome the phase-out.

“The phase-out is above all a final entry: into a secure and low-risk, affordable and clean energy supply – into the age of renewables,” said green party chief Ricarda Lang told dpa.

Liberals insist that nuclear power is needed to ensure sufficient energy supply.

“From my point of view, the continued operation of the nuclear power plants is necessary for energy security and the elimination of coal-fired power,” said Bijan Djir-Sarai, the secretary-general of the business-friendly FDP.

The social democrats, the third party in the German government, reject this argument.

Conservatives question the climate-friendly nature of the shutdown.

“The dismantling of nuclear power plants is a black day for climate protection in Germany,” said Jens Spahn, the energy policy spokesman of the opposition’s center-right CDU and former health minister.

Observers are quick to point out that a CDU government ultimately decreed their shutdown and that the party itself went into the 2021 election insisting that they be shut down as scheduled.

The German public is split down the middle, although nuclear power has gained ground in recent years due to the energy crisis. According to a recent survey, 52% of Germans favour an extension of nuclear runtimes, while 37% reject the notion.

But Germany’s turn away from nuclear power has also impacted the relationship at the heart of Europe, the Franco-German duo.

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Pulling in the same direction

In 2021, the third reactor of the Finnish Olkiluoto nuclear power plant began feeding electricity into the grid – much like Germany’s Kahl had done 60 years prior.

This was the result of Franco-German efforts. The reactor’s type, pressured water and known as EPR, had been jointly designed by French and German companies.

Their cooperation began at a time when nuclear power in Germany had not yet become the absolute no-go of later years. In the 1990s, the research ministry of the freshly united country was consistently held by the nuclear-friendly liberal FDP.

It was then that the two countries started their shared work on the nuclear project. In 1991, France’s energy giant EDF and German companies began joint development work. Shortly after, Paris and Berlin sought to create a harmonised definition for an EPR reactor type that was meant to reduce the impacts of a possible worst-case scenario by being much safer.

This joint development culminated in the start of construction at Olkiluoto in Finland. Of the 1,600 companies contracted on the reactors, more than half were German.

However, the cooperative atmosphere has since faded, particularly due to Germany’s decision to accelerate its nuclear exit policy after the Fukushima disaster, which was implemented by the SPD and Greens. The French are convinced that Brussels, possibly influenced by Berlin, is advocating anti-nuclear policies.

French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire rejected criticism from Germany and emphasised respect for the sovereign decisions of each country regarding their energy choices. He also called for mutual respect, stating that he expects Germany not to criticise France’s choices regarding nuclear energy, as France increases its nuclear ambition.

In Germany, some refer to French nuclear power plants as “trash reactors,” a term that the French minister rejects, explaining that repairs had addressed technical difficulties in the past.

The differing stances on nuclear energy between France and Germany have created tensions in their bilateral relationship, with each country advocating for their respective energy policies.

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