Without the anti-nuclear campaign, Germany’s energy transition would almost certainly be different. Despite a significant focus on opposing nuclear power, the civil society movement that propelled the Green Party to power has always been concerned about the environment and sought to guarantee that reactors were not replaced with coal plants. Rainer Baake, director of the Climate Neutrality Foundation, former energy state secretary, and one of the architects of Germany’s first nuclear phase-out in 2000, talked with Clean Energy Wire. He claims that with all democratic parties committed to the withdrawal timeline, Germany returning to this high-risk technology is “totally out of the question.” The EU Commission would invalidate the taxonomy if it decided to include nuclear as a sustainable investment, he argued. “However, this will not halt Germany’s energy shift.”
ENERGY NEWS: What role does the anti-nuclear movement play in the German energy transition, as well as the first nuclear phase-out agreement signed in 2000?
Rainer Baake: The energy transition debate in Germany would not have taken place as it did if the anti-nuclear movement had not emerged. The Chernobyl disaster, which occurred on April 26, 1986, was the turning point. The majority of Germans, who had previously backed nuclear energy, had radically changed their minds. Since then, the majority of people have been opposed to nuclear power.
And how did this shift in public opinion culminate in the nuclear phase-out?
Initially, majorities in parliaments favored nuclear power. We were able to shut down the Hanau nuclear fuel factory due to safety concerns when the Greens became part of the Hesse administration in 1991. We have had to shut down the Biblis nuclear power station multiple times due to violations of safety requirements by the operator. The federal government, on the other hand, has legislative authority over nuclear legislation. During my term as state secretary in Hesse, I collaborated with a group of law academics, the ko-Institut, and other specialists to establish a strategy for ceasing federal nuclear power usage without expropriating the operators. The idea, at its core, called for legally restricting the working lifespan of nuclear power facilities for the greater benefit. Following the federal elections in 1998, this notion was incorporated into the SPD-Green coalition agreement. We as a government reached an agreement with the operators on a nuclear energy phase-out in the year 2000 after arduous but eventually successful discussions. Following that, the requirements were integrated into the Atomic Energy Act. Over the next 22 years, nuclear energy should be phased out. Compensation was specifically left out of the equation. The legislators justified the phase-out by citing the extremely high damage potential of a nuclear disaster, the unsolved disposal issue for highly radioactive waste, and the proliferation danger. The Federal Constitutional Court dismissed a challenge brought by a state governed by the CDU and FDP against the nuclear phase-out law.
How did the strong push to phase out nuclear power lead to an energy shift aimed at mitigating climate change?
True, during the start of Germany’s energy transition, we concentrated on nuclear power. However, in 2000, we passed the Renewable Energys Act (EEG), which ran concurrently with the nuclear phase-out. We did so to avoid a rise in fossil-fuel power generation and a burden on the climate as a result of the nuclear phase-out. In actuality, a great deal has been accomplished in the previous two decades. In Germany now, renewables provide far more electricity than nuclear power facilities did in 2000.
You may locate a paper from the Institute for Applied Ecology (ko-Institut) if you go back and look at where the phrase Energiewende came from. With its programmatic document “Energy Transition – Growth and Prosperity without Oil and Uranium,” the ko-Institut created the phrase in 1980.
Has Germany, on the other hand, approached the energy transition in the incorrect order, phasing out nuclear power first and then coal?
Certainly not. This “either – or” argument, in my opinion, is utterly incorrect. The entire energy transition entails the replacement of conventional, nuclear, and fossil power facilities with renewables. And that’s where we started at the same time. When the decision to phase down nuclear power was made, the Renewable Energy Act was enacted. We opted on an emissions trading scheme in Europe as a result of the Kyoto Protocol. Nuclear power will be phased out by the end of this decade, and coal will be phased out as well, with both being replaced by renewables. The exchange of fossil natural gas for hydrogen will be the next phase.
Some people believe that nuclear power fears are unreasonable; how can you explain why Germans are so worried?
We’ve seen how absurd this concern is purportedly in Fukushima. A triple meltdown stunned even the most ardent proponents of nuclear power. And this occurred in one of the world’s most advanced and technologically advanced economies. 155,000 people were forced to flee their homes as a result of the disaster.
One of the goals of Germany’s energy transition is to demonstrate how a transition away from fossil fuels can work in an industrialized country; yet, does Germany’s good example contain the flaw of a difficult-to-explain nuclear phase-out?
I’ve never argued like that before. I’ve always maintained that each country must chart its own course and make its own decisions. This decision has been taken by Germany, and it is supported by an overwhelming majority in our parliament. I am certain that if we continue to make progress on this transition, as we did in the previous 20 years, we will have a more cost-effective and secure electricity system. As a result, we will be in rivalry with others. Those who believe they have better options are free to try them, but I am certain that we will be able to provide power to our industry and population at a lower cost and with more reliability than others.
Is it hypocritical that, despite its desire to build no new nuclear power plants, Germany will continue to receive nuclear electricity from other nations, particularly France, in the future?
For many years, Germany has been exporting far more power than it imports. This is due to the fact that our wholesale market has cheaper pricing than those in our neighboring nations. This does not rule out the possibility of power from other nations’ nuclear reactors being sold in Germany at times. We have a single market in the EU, and power amounts are sold according to market norms; there is no hypocrisy here.
Can nuclear power, as delivered by today’s nuclear power plants, make a significant contribution to a renewable-dominated electrical system? Do you want to use it as a basic load or for additional system services?
The inverse is true. To reconcile changing supply with varying demand in a climate-friendly power system dominated by weather-dependent output from wind and solar facilities, a large lot of flexibility is required. Nuclear power facilities are intended to produce as consistently as feasible, both technically and operationally. They are the polar opposite of what wind and sun require in order to work together.
Is it an issue for Germany’s energy transition if other (European) nations invest in nuclear power instead of renewables, aided by the new European taxonomy?
I believe it ludicrous to label a technology as green and sustainable when it poses the risk of nuclear power plants. And it’s even worse since it generates radioactive waste that will be deadly for a million years and for which we have yet to find a safe solution. The EU Commission has discredited the taxonomy with its judgment. This, however, will not halt Germany’s energy shift.
I am confident that no private enterprise would ever develop a nuclear power plant on their own dime and at their own risk. That is unaffected by the taxonomy. In the best-case scenario, it eliminates the massive government subsidies required to get this technology to market.
While renewable energies have grown progressively cheaper as a result of technological advancements and learning curves over the last 20 years, nuclear energy costs have continued to climb. It’s no surprise, therefore, that renewable energy now account for 70% of worldwide power sector investment, according to IEA estimates.
According to a recent poll, a slim majority of Germans feel that nuclear power should play a role in climate protection. Do you believe that sentiments about nuclear power in Germany will change again?
What survey are you referring to? All of the surveys I’ve seen since Chernobyl have showed clear majorities in favor of phasing out nuclear power. Take a look at the results of the most recent federal election: all democratic parties supported the nuclear phase-out timeline and the growth of renewable energy sources. At the end of this year, the final three reactors will be shut down. This will be the last time Germany uses nuclear power.
Is there any chance that, as some have suggested, Germany may let existing nuclear power reactors run longer next year?
Such a situation, in my opinion, is completely implausible.
Do you think the new small-scale nuclear reactors provide a potential for nuclear power to be used again in the battle against climate change?
These reactors, which are said to be perfectly safe and do not emit any radioactive waste, have one big flaw: they do not exist.
Only approximately ten percent of the world’s electricity demand is met by the 400 nuclear power reactors that exist today. Many thousands of these power units would be required to replace worldwide fossil power generation with tiny nuclear reactors. They would have to work with highly enriched uranium precisely because they are so tiny. The risk of nuclear material being taken illegally and used to construct weapons is serious. No one wants it, and the free world, hopefully, will not let it.