Germany’s stunning decision this week to switch off nuclear power by 2022 may prevent a political meltdown for Chancellor Angela Merkel and her party. But for Germans, who live in Europe’s largest economy, it will likely generate costs – economic, environmental, and even geopolitical.
Pure and simple, politics drove Chancellor Merkel to this unwise policy reversal. She has ardently supported nuclear power, which generates 23 percent of Germany’s electricity. Earlier, she had decided to extend the life of Germany’s atomic plants until 2036, more than a decade longer than a scheduled phaseout agreed to in the previous center-left government.
But when Japan’s earthquake and tsunami caused a partial meltdown of nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in March, that also triggered earth-moving protests against nuclear power in Germany. In local elections, the issue caused Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrat party to lose political control of a state that it had historically dominated. Her nuclear “nein, danke” now opens the way to a possible coalition with the popular Green party after the next national election.
Since the calamity at Fukushima, countries have rightly launched safety reviews of this energy industry. Given the threat of global warming and dependence on foreign oil, the proper course is to update and improve nuclear design and safety, not abandon a clean energy source.
[Editor's Note: The headline in an earlier version listed the incorrect year of the planned phase-out.]
Most of the world appears to agree with this, though Italy and Switzerland have moved away from plans for new plants. Japan has abandoned its goal of substantially increasing nuclear power and scrapped plans for 14 plants – an understandable pause considering its location in an extreme earthquake and tsunami zone.
But even Japan is not dialing down to zero in a decade. For Germany, the costs are already foreseeable:
Electricity prices are certain to rise as the government pushes more expensive and less reliable renewables to make up for the nuclear gap. The manufacturing sector – which relies heavily on electricity – could lose its competitive edge. German industry and utilities have reacted strongly against the policy change.
One utility has filed a legal suit against the government; another one plans to sue. They seek billions in damages now that the 2036 date is off. Of course, energy prices were going to rise anyway, given fees related to reducing carbon emissions and the world’s increasing demand for fossil fuels. But Merkel’s move will compound the problem.
The no-nuclear policy will also take an environmental toll, at least in the short term. Analysts wonder how the transition will be possible without relying more heavily on coal and especially natural gas. The latter may be cleaner than coal, but it still emits some greenhouse gases – and new fracturing technology to extract gas is controversial. Reuters reports that the switch will add an extra 40 million tons of carbon emissions per year as the country adjusts.
And where will Germany get that extra gas? The answer could make it even more heavily dependent on Russia, which has used gas exports and pipelines to blackmail and divide greater Europe. On the other hand, Germany’s needs could spur on the construction of the Nabucco pipeline from Azerbaijan, which is designed to circumvent Russia.
With her decision, Merkel is committing Germany to doubling its reliance on renewable energy in 10 years, increasing it to 35 percent of Germany’s energy mix from its current 17 percent.
“We can be the first industrial country to make the transition into an age of highly efficient and renewable energy,” she said. The government, she promised, would ease red tape and help spur the renewables build-out, including networks to move wind energy from the breezy north to other parts of Germany.
Despite all of its likely costs, despite its political motivation, there’s also something exciting about this leap into the future. The Germans are a can-do people. They doubled their use of renewable energy in the past decade. A jump of this scope is not advisable, but now that it’s been decided, the world will be watching to see if it can be done – and what the consequences will be.