Can Germany Solve Difficult Issues Related to Electricity Supply?

Germany has completed its exit from nuclear power generation, shutting down the three nuclear power plants that were operating in that nation.

Nuclear power generation contributes to both the stable supply of electricity and the prevention of global warming. In the wake of the energy crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, will Germany be able to solve the problems associated with its exit from nuclear power?

The administration of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had initially planned to shut down all nuclear power plants at the end of last year, but concerns about the tight electricity supply for heating purposes led to operations being extended. Now that winter is over, the German government has reportedly decided that another extension is unnecessary.

The decision to shut down all nuclear power plants was made in 2011 by the previous administration of then Chancellor Angela Merkel. It came in the wake of the accident at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant that year, and was based on a position emphasizing the risks of a nuclear accident. Since that time, the portion of Germany’s electricity supply that was provided by nuclear power was gradually reduced from about 18%.

The problem is that Germany pursued its phaseout of nuclear power in tandem with the expansion of imports of Russian natural gas.

Russia has drastically reduced its natural gas exports in reaction to European economic sanctions against Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. In Germany, too, electricity prices have skyrocketed. This situation was likely not anticipated when the German government decided to phase out nuclear power.

The Scholz administration plans to reduce the share of gas- and coal-fired power in overall power generation and increase the percentage of renewable energy from wind and solar power from the current 51% to 80% by 2030.

Germany has said it will cover all of its power needs with renewable energy in the future, but many issues remain, such as the weather-dependent nature of renewable energy and the development of energy storage technology. It remains to be seen whether the shift will proceed as planned.

In public opinion polls conducted this spring in Germany, two-thirds of the respondents called for the continued operation of nuclear power plants. This suggests that many people are concerned about the power supply.

Opinion is likely to be divided as to whether Germany was justified in sticking to its decision to cease nuclear power generation even after the collapse of its energy strategy of dependence on Russian natural gas.

It is a common challenge in Europe to end dependency on Russia for energy procurement. Outside of Germany, there is a growing movement to reevaluate nuclear power generation as a useful tool for combating climate change and as a source of a stable power supply, and to utilize nuclear power plants after ensuring their safety.

In Finland, one of Europe’s largest nuclear reactors began regular output of energy in mid-April. Plans for new reactors are also underway in France and Poland. Germany’s departure from nuclear power puts it in the minority.

It should be noted that European countries are interconnected by a power grid and mutually supply electricity in the event of power shortages. Germany’s exit from nuclear power generation can never serve as a model for Japan, an island nation.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 30, 2023)