Scholz says nuclear energy issue ‘a dead horse’ for Germany – DW – 09/02/2023


German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has dismissed calls by his coalition partner, the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), to consider the option of using nuclear energy again.

Germany ended operations at its last three nuclear power plants on April 15 this year.

But earlier this week, the FDP’s parliamentary group approved a policy statement calling on Germany “to stop the dismantling of the nuclear power plants that are still fit to use” as part of efforts to be prepared for worst-case scenarios.

“That is the only way we will remain capable of acting in every situation,” it said. 

What did Scholz say?

In an interview released with German broadcaster Deutschlandfunk released on Saturday, Scholz declared the issue “a dead horse.”

He also insisted that any suggestion to resume the use of nuclear energy would imply building new stations.

“Nuclear energy is over,” he said. “The issue of nuclear energy in Germany is a dead horse. Anyone who wanted to build new nuclear power plants would need 15 years and would have to spend €15-20 billion ($16.2-21.6 billion) each.”

The chancellor went on to assure that it was not an issue where he had to throw in political weight. “The phaseout has been done by law… I don’t need to put my foot down at all,” Scholz told Deutschlandfunk. 

Germany and nuclear power — a love-hate relationship

Nuclear power has been celebrated, condemned, and banned in Germany. As energy imports from Russia came to an end, many began calling for it to make a comeback. Here’s a look at the history of a love-hate relationship.

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It all began with an ‘egg’

Germany’s first nuclear reactor went online in October 1957 in Garching near Munich. Given its shape, it was nicknamed the “atomic egg” and belonged to Munich’s Technical University. It was a landmark in nuclear research and a symbol of a new beginning after WWII. In 1961, Germany began to produce energy for civilian use. Atomic energy was seen as safe and secure.

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In the 1970s, opponents of nuclear energy questioned just how clean nuclear power was, seeing as there is no safe storage for spent fuel rods. Thousands of protesters clashed with police during a demonstration against the nuclear power plant Brokdorf, in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein. “Nuclear energy? No thanks,” became the rallying cry for German environmentalists.

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‘Nuclear energy? No thanks’

The danger of nuclear power soon became reality. On March 28, 1979, the plant at Three Mile Island, in the US state of Pennsylvania, had a serious accident. And on April 26, 1986, a reactor at the plant near Chernobyl, in Soviet Ukraine, exploded — causing an unprecedented nuclear disaster. A radioactive cloud spread across Europe. It was a watershed moment for Germany, with rotests gaining steam.

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In 1980, a new party was founded in West Germany: the Greens. Their members were a mix of left-wingers, peaceniks, environmentalists — and a key contingency, nuclear opponents. The party made entered Bundestag, the German parliament, in 1983. Meanwhile, the Chernobyl accident prompted the creation of an environment ministry in Germany.

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Wackersdorf: Tragedy and triumph

The Bavarian town of Wackersdorf was set to get a reprocessing plant for spent nuclear fuel rods, but riots broke out in protest. A number of demonstrators and civil service workers were killed, and hundreds more people were injured. Construction was halted in 1989. The German environmental movement claimed its first major victory — muted by the tragedy of lost lives.

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Gorleben: Radioactive waste in a salt mine

Meanwhile up north, the town of Gorleben — in the state of Lower Saxony — became a symbol of the fight against nuclear waste. The salt dome there was picked as an interim storage facility for nuclear waste. But already in 1977, a large-scale study revealed that groundwater was seeping in, corroding the barrels holding the waste. This of course posed a major risk of radioactive contamination.

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Germany’s exit from nuclear power has been marked by flip-flops. The center-left coalition of Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder intended the phaseout of nuclear energy in an agreement with big energy companies in 2001. An individual lifespan was determined for all 19 German nuclear power plants, requiring the last to be shut down by 2021.

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Rolling back — then rolling back the rollback

In 2010, the center-right government under Chancellor Angela Merkel revoked the deal and decided to extend the operating lives of Germany’s nuclear power plants. But following the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima plant in Japan in 2011, Merkel abruptly announced the end to Germany’s atomic era. In July 2011, the Bundestag voted to shut down all nuclear reactors by December 31, 2022.

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Celebrating the end of nuclear energy in Germany

After years of especially intense protest, activists in the German towns of Grohnde, Gundremmingen and Brokdorf celebrated when the power plants there were switched off at the end of 2021. But the search for a safe waste repository continues. The nationwide location for a geologically suitable safe site for high-level radioactive waste is to be determined by 2031.

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Should we stay or should we go?

In response to energy shortages due to the war in Ukraine, calls became louder to extend the lifespan of Germany’s remaining three nuclear power plants. Green Party Economy Minister Robert Habeck (right) reluctantly agreed to put two of them on standby until mid-April. But FDP Finance Minister Christian Lindner advocated extending all remaining power stations’ lifespan well into 2024.

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The chancellor decrees an extension

The dispute between the FDP and the Greens turned into a crucial test for the German governing coalition, with Chancellor Olaf Scholz in the end making use of his directives authority. In a letter to the finance, economy and environment ministries, he communicated his decision: The three remaining nuclear power plants are to continue operating until April 15, 2023. Parliament may amend the law.

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Phase-out completed… or is it?

When the last three reactors were switched off on April 15, 2023, reactions were mixed. Defenders of nuclear energy argue that it could help Germany meet its goal of carbon neutrality by 2045. And two-thirds of Germans surveyed favored extending the lifespan of nuclear reactors. So Bavaria’s Premier Markus Söder vowed to seek a way to continue operating the Isar 2 power station.

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Why does the FDP want nuclear energy?

The FDP’s push is driven by rising electricity costs, with the party being against state-subsidized industrial electricity prices that Scholz’s center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the third coalition partner, the Greens, are seeking.

The gradual phaseout of nuclear energy in Germany was initially an SPD policy, implemented during their first ever federal coalition with the Green Party after 1998’s election. The conservative CDU and FDP later briefly overturned this decision, following their win in the 2009 elections, but then-Chancellor Angela Merkel u-turned and reinstated the phaseout in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster in 2011.

But the issue has grown to be more divisive in light of Russia’s war in Ukraine and the subsequent energy crunch, as well as increasing pressure to reduce carbon emissions in light of climate change. 

The CDU/CSU, now in opposition, also advocate a limited nuclear restart in the meantime, despite having led the last government to issue a shutdown order. Bavarian state premier Markus Söder said last month that he could imagine Germany restarting nuclear plants one day, and said that if energy prices were still strained, his party would consider action as soon as 2025, if they win the next federal election. 

Scholz’s latest remarks came after the ruling coalition sought to project unity during a two-day retreat outside Berlin earlier this week, following semi-public friction between the SPD, the FDP and the Greens on different issues.

fb/msh (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters) 

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