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How Germany Phased Out Nuclear Power, Only to Get Mugged by Reality

Getty Images / Thomas Starke / Stringer

Berlin, Germany—For years, environmentalists in America have looked longingly to Germany. There, across the Atlantic, lay a small, cold, gray country whose solar energy production dwarfed big, sunny America’s, a nation that last year pledged to get 80 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by mid-century while Americans proved unable to agree on energy legislation even a fraction as ambitious. Yet in bowing to the country’s strong anti-nuclear movement, Germany appears to have suddenly gone off track: Within the last year the country has gone from a net exporter of electricity* to a net importer, and the carbon intensity of the energy it purchases has risen as well. Now, with its energy politics in turmoil, Germany is serving as a very different sort of model for environmentalists: how not to go green.

At the root of Germany’s current energy struggle is its nuclear power politics. Reports tend to cite Japan’s Fukushima disaster as the starting point of the country’s nuclear turmoil, but really the story begins a lot earlier, in Chernobyl, Ukraine. The Chernobyl plant’s 1986 nuclear meltdown in Germany’s backyard galvanized the anti-nuclear movement and led the country’s center-left parties to commit to phasing out nuclear power—a pledge they fulfilled when the Nuclear Exit Law went into effect in 2002 and mandated the end of nuclear power in Germany within 20 years.

When Angela Merkel’s administration changed course last year and moved to extend the operating life of the country’s nuclear plants, tens of thousands of environmental advocates flocked to Berlin from all over the country (and even from abroad) to protest the reversal. With opinion polls showing that Germans opposed the nuclear extension by nearly a two-to-one margin and Merkel’s political rivals promising to overturn her new policy, the German nuclear industry seemed to be hanging on by a thread.

Then came Fukushima. The German government really only needed the slightest excuse to nix its plans for a nuclear future; instead, it was given a tsunami. Four days after the earthquake struck Japan, and before the implications of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown were fully understood, the government shut down eight of the country’s 17 nuclear reactors. Two weeks later, the Merkel administration announced that the remainder of Germany’s nuclear power would be phased out by 2022.

Environmentalists suddenly had a much more resounding victory over nuclear power than they’d thought possible a month earlier. They cheered the news—for a time, at least. But over the next six months, it became increasingly clear that the fidgety administration, worried by declining poll numbers, had failed to think through the consequences of its abrupt U-turn. Last year, Germany was a net exporter of electricity, drawing from a diverse range of energy sources led by coal, but with substantial contributions from low-emissions nuclear (23 percent of the total mix) and renewable energy sources (17 percent). With half of the country’s nuclear plants suddenly yanked from the grid in March, however, Germany became a net importer of electricity almost overnight.

The resulting economic loss from the shift has been disconcerting for a country with near-zero growth. Compounding the problem, electricity prices have risen for consumers, and it could cost the country’s four operators of nuclear plants more than $40 billion simply to shut the nuclear reactors down. To environmentalists, though, the greater concern has been the question of where Germany is getting its new power to make up for the country’s energy shortfall.

Germany’s environmental activists had hoped that shutting down nuclear plants would clear the way for the development of renewable energy sources. The Merkel government has laid out a set of ambitious targets to that effect, but not the proper mix of incentives and infrastructure to ensure that renewables make up for the current energy shortfall. Indeed, Laszlo Varro, the head of the gas, coal, and power markets division at the International Energy Agency, told me the end of nuclear power ultimately won’t have a discernible impact on renewable generation. That’s because the main obstacle to renewable development isn’t competition from nuclear power, but the challenge of transmission—how to bring electricity from offshore wind farms in northern Germany to the factories in the south. The nuclear phaseout, Varro argues, will only exacerbate this challenge by removing nuclear plants from southern Germany and increasing the north-south energy imbalance.

The energy shortage that’s hit Germany since the nuclear shutdowns is indeed taking place mainly in the country’s industry-heavy south, says Konrad Kleinknecht, the former climate commissioner of the German Physical Society, the world’s largest organization of physicists, and it will require more fossil fuel power generation as a result. “Where are we supposed to get the rest of our energy in the next ten years?” Kleinknecht asks. “If nuclear power plants are taken off the grid, we’ll need to build around 30 coal and gas plants, mostly in the south.”

Varro estimates that the nuclear phaseout in Germany has caused a 25-million-ton annual increase in carbon dioxide emissions. The culprit, in large part, is the new coal power that has come online to meet the shortfall. “In the past couple of months,” Varro says, “coal-fired power generation was up in Germany because they shut down the old nuclear power plants from one day to the next, and you can’t build renewable power from one day to the next.”

Meanwhile, the biggest financial winner from Germany’s nuclear moratorium, Varro says, is nuclear power outside Germany. Since March, Germany has imported considerably more electricity from neighboring countries like France that rely on nuclear power sources. It’s also turned to power from coal-fired plants in Poland and the Czech Republic.

None of this means that Germany has necessarily fallen off course in meeting its ambitious renewable energy targets (the 2050 goal involves many factors, and it’s too soon to judge the ongoing progress with any certainty). But the country’s chances of meeting its emissions goals will almost certainly suffer. That’s because replacing low-emissions nuclear power with wind or solar doesn’t actually reduce emissions—and replacing it with coal and gas only worsens the situation. “Reaching the carbon dioxide emissions target will be more difficult and more expensive after the moratorium,” Varro predicts.

This is no doubt a source of dismay among the very environmental activists who pushed for, and succeeded in bringing about, the nuclear phaseout. But it’s not the only reason for disappointment. Indeed, anti-nuclear activists employed another main argument for the end of nuclear power in Germany: safety concerns in the event of a meltdown or attack. On that count, however, the phaseout has also proved problematic.

It’s true that the risk of a meltdown within Germany is diminished as the country’s nuclear plants are decommissioned. But now German electricity consumers are suddenly providing more business to nuclear power plants in neighboring countries that are, in some cases, not as well regulated as their German counterparts. Instead of producing nuclear power itself, for instance, Germany is importing power from plants like the accident-prone one in the Czech city of Temelin, just over 60 miles from the German border.

To be sure, as a laboratory for an energy experiment of this magnitude, Germany does have some advantages. It’s a highly industrialized country with a substantial investment in renewable energy sources and a history of beating expectations. And to some environmentalists who believe strongly in the need to eliminate nuclear power, the experiment has been a worthwhile, if perhaps a bit hasty, effort toward a necessary end. But many energy experts are more skeptical. In a survey this month of experts in 21 countries by the London-based World Energy Council, none of the respondents said they expected Germany to meet all of its stated energy goals, and more than three-quarters predicted a weakening of the Germany economy over the coming decade as a result of the nuclear phaseout. “It’s really a catastrophe,” Kleinknecht told me.

Earlier this month in Bonn, German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen heaped praises on the German energy project. The country’s energy policy, he said, “could serve as an interesting example to other countries.” Röttgen is right that the world’s environmentalists have their eyes on Germany. It’s just that the example the country is setting might not be the one he intended.

Correction: This article originally stated that Germany has become a net importer of energy. Instead, it has become a net importer of electricity. We regret the error.