It is getting hard to keep track of Germany’s “exits.” I am talking about those pertaining to nuclear energy. Let us see: We are now between three and four, but closer to four.
Nuclear exit number one began in 2000. Back then the German government consisted of the center-left Social Democratic Party and the Green Party. The latter were in power for the first time, having grown out of the hippie counterculture of the 1970s, and in particular the German mass movement against nuclear energy. So Germany decided to phase out its nuclear power plants.
Exit two happened in 2010. By then, the German government consisted of the center-right Christian Democratic Union and the pro-business Free Democratic Party. They decided to exit from the first exit and keep the remaining nuclear plants running.
Exit three followed within a year, after the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. It spooked the government into exiting from its own exit of the preceding exit. That is, Germany again began phasing out nuclear power.
The country’s last three fission reactors are due to go offline at the end of this year — which is obviously bad timing. This is the year Russian President Vladimir Putin chose to attack Ukraine and declare economic war on the EU. He is already throttling the natural gas that used to gush from Russia to central Europe.
Germany, in particular, relies on that gas. It mainly needs it to fuel factories and heat homes.
However, gas was also supposed to fill the gap in power generation left by nuclear energy being phased out — which still accounted for 12 percent of electricity last year.
The government dealing with this mess once again consists of the 2000 roster of Social Democrats and Greens, but now with the addition of the Free Democrats who were part of later exits. The result is cacophonous.
The Christian Democrats, now in opposition, are calling for an extension of the three nuclear plants still online. That could be done even without buying new fuel rods. The Free Democrats agree, but are treading carefully lest they ruffle the tenuous coalition peace.
Others want to restart the reactors already offline as well — a group of 20 university professors is urging parliament to permanently exit all previous nuclear exits. An industry association even wants to invest in entirely new fission plants.
Germany’s European partners are also vociferous. They never understood Germany’s nuclear hysteria in the first place. France relies on fission for most of its electricity and is investing in more reactors. Cutting-edge nations such as Finland view nuclear power as a small, but crucial part in any resilient energy mix.
The EU’s eastern members, from Poland to Romania and Slovakia, are especially annoyed. They spent decades urging Germany not to make itself dependent on Russian gas and vulnerable to Putin’s blackmail. The Germans either ignored them or smugly lectured them on “Kremlinology,” refusing to acknowledge any connection between their policies on Russia, gas and fission.
Now those links are obvious. The EU, trying hard to look united, is asking all member states to reduce gas usage by 15 percent.
However, some countries see that as bailing out Germany for their own policy failures. As a Slovakian official puts it: Why not start saving gas by firing up Germany’s nuclear reactors first?
The Netherlands makes a similar point. It has Europe’s largest gas field, in Groningen, but getting the hydrocarbons out of the ground might cause earthquakes, so the Netherlands is phasing out production.
Now Germany is asking its neighbor to rethink that exit, because it wants the Groningen gas to replace Putin’s. That would be easier to sell to Dutch voters if Germany showed some flexibility on nuclear power.
However, what many people do not appreciate is that the German controversy is less a policy debate than a religious war — not unlike the US debates about guns or abortion.
Many Germans have spent their entire lives protesting against the splitting of atoms. The Green Party’s base, in particular, teems with zealots who consider all nuclear energy evil, and any attempt to nuance the discussion as tantamount to treason.
However, the Greens are in the government and have responsibility. They even run the relevant ministries — those for the environment and for commerce and energy — so the party’s leaders are dipping their toes into the discussion.
Germany has a gas problem, not an electricity problem, they argue. This is true up to a certain point. Keeping the nuclear reactors going could save only 4 percent of the country’s overall gas consumption, a far cry from the 15 percent the EU stipulates.
However, nobody is suggesting that this should be the only step — just that it is one of several that Germans cannot afford to forego.
It is true that nuclear fission has risks. One is the danger of accidents that leak radiation. Another is the problem of finding permanent repositories for the radioactive waste.
However, all forms of energy have risks. These have to be balanced against the risks of alternatives and against benefits.
Renewable energy sources such as the sun and wind are obviously the preferred option, but they fluctuate. Wind turbines also sprawl over much more of the countryside and nature than reactors do.
Gas and oil emit carbon — and often come from unsavory vendors such as Putin. Coal — Germany’s default in the absence of nuclear and gas — is even dirtier. It bears most blame for accelerating climate change, the greatest risk of all.
By contrast, the risks of fission energy seem manageable, especially with new technologies. Best of all, it emits no greenhouse gases.
It also does not stop when the sun goes down or the breeze dies. That is why the Paris-based International Energy Agency says that the world needs more, not less, of it.
Even religious wars eventually wear themselves out. Germany’s leaders, including those who head the Greens, seem to be secretly yearning to make peace. They are just agonizing over how to communicate that to the public. Exit number four is getting closer.
Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. He is a former editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for The Economist.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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