Germany began winding down its three remaining nuclear power plants on Saturday as part of a long-planned transition toward renewable energy, drawing cheers from environmentalists who campaigned for the move.
Other industrialised countries, such as the United States, Japan, China, France and Britain, are counting on nuclear energy to replace planet-warming fossil fuels. Germany’s decision to stop using both has met some scepticism, as well as unsuccessful last-minute calls to halt the shutdown.
Advocates of nuclear power worldwide have slammed the German shutdown, aware that the action by Europe’s biggest economy could deal a blow to a technology they tout as a clean and reliable alternative to fossil fuels.
The German government has acknowledged that, in the short term, the country will have to rely more heavily on polluting coal and natural gas to meet its energy needs, even as it takes steps to massively ramp up electricity production from solar and wind. Germany aims to be carbon neutral by 2045.
But officials such as Environment Minister Steffi Lemke say the idea of a nuclear renaissance is a myth, citing data showing that atomic energy’s share of global electricity production is shrinking.
At a recent news conference in Berlin, Lemke noted that building new nuclear plants in Europe, such as Hinkley Point C in Britain, has faced significant delays and cost overruns. Funds spent on maintaining aging reactors or building new ones would be better spent on installing cheap renewables, she argued.
Experts such as Claudia Kemfert of the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin say the five percent share of Germany’s electricity currently coming from its remaining three reactors can be easily replaced without risking blackouts.
Decades of anti-nuclear protests in Germany, stoked by disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, put pressure on successive governments to end the use of a technology that critics argue is unsafe and unsustainable.
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Environmental groups planned to mark the day with celebrations outside the three reactors and rallies in major cities, including Berlin. Small, closed-doors ceremonies inside the plants were also organised.
Defenders of atomic energy say fossil fuels should be phased out first as part of global efforts to curb climate change, arguing that nuclear power produces far fewer greenhouse gas emissions and is safe, if properly managed.
As energy prices spiked last year due to the war in Ukraine, some members of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government got cold feet about closing the nuclear plants as planned on December 31, 2022.
In a compromise, Scholz agreed to a one-time extension of the deadline, but insisted that the final countdown would happen on April 15.
Still, Bavaria’s conservative governor, Markus Soeder, who backed the original deadline set in 2011 when Chancellor Angela Merkel was Germany’s leader, this week called the shutdown “an absolute mistaken decision”.
“While many countries in the world are even expanding nuclear power, Germany is doing the opposite,” Soeder said. “We need every possible form of energy. Otherwise, we risk higher electricity prices and businesses moving away.”