Critics argue that switching off reactors will deprive country of low-emission power and increase reliance on fossil fuel plants that contribute to climate change
Germany will permanently shut down its final three commercial nuclear power reactors this weekend, making good on the country’s delayed nuclear phaseout even amid Europe’s energy crisis caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine and last-minute appeals for reactor lifetimes to be extended.
The Isar-2, Neckarwestheim-2 and Emsland plants make up some 6% of the country’s total energy mix – down from almost 12% in 2021 when more units were operating – or roughly 4,055 MW (net) of capacity.
All three plants will be shut down on 15 April under the extended timeline proposed last autumn by Germany’s governing coalition.
The final three reactors had been scheduled for closure at the end of 2022 along with the rest of the country’s nuclear fleet.
In October, however, German chancellor Olaf Scholz proposed to extend their lifespan until mid-April, citing the supply concerns caused by the war and the resulting Western sanctions.
Lawmakers approved the extension on the condition the plants, which began operation more than 30 years ago, would cease operating by mid-April of this year.
Shutdown Will Be ‘Dramatic Mistake’
The German government dismissed calls on Wednesday for a last-minute delay in shutting down the three plants this weekend.
Opposition politicians and even some members of the Free Democrats, a libertarian party that is part of Scholz’s governing alliance, demanded a reprieve for the remaining reactors, reports said.
“The nuclear phaseout by April 15, that’s this Saturday, is a done deal,” Scholz spokesperson Christiane Hoffmann said.
Critics argue that switching off the nuclear plants will deprive Germany of a source of low-emission power and requires the country to keep operating fossil fuel plants that contribute to climate change.
Wolfgang Kubicki, deputy leader of the Free Democrats, said in an interview with the Funke Media Group that Germany has the safest nuclear power plants worldwide and switching them off would be “a dramatic mistake” with painful economic and ecological consequences.
Other members of his party have called for the nuclear plants at least to be maintained as a fallback in case they are needed at a later date.
But doing that would be both illegal and costly, according to environment ministry spokesperson Bastian Zimmermann.
Zimmermann said the three reactors last underwent safety checks in 2009 and such inspections normally need to occur every 10 years. The requirement was only suspended due to the shutdown planned for the end of 2022, he said.
Ministry Dismisses Energy Concerns
Any further lifetime extension for the plants would require comprehensive and lengthy security checks again, Zimmermann said.
The economy ministry dismissed concerns that Germany will not be able to meet its energy needs without the nuclear power plants.
Ministry spokesperson Beate Baron said recent studies showed Germany would be able to maintain its power supply with coal and gas-fired power plants and renewables such as wind and solar, while remaining a net exporter of electricity.
All German nuclear power plants that had gone into operation up to and including 1980 were shut down immediately after the March 2011 Fukushima disaster.
These were: Biblis-A and Biblis-B, Brunsbüttel, Isar-1, Neckarwestheim-1, Unterweser and Philippsburg-1. The Krümmel nuclear power plant was already off the grid at the time.
The Grohnde, Gundremmingen-C and Brokdorf nuclear power plants were shut down on 31 December 2021.
Until March 2011 Germany generated one-quarter of its electricity from nuclear energy with 17 reactors.
The control room at the 62-MW Rheinsberg VVER-70 plant, the first commercial nuclear power reactor in East Germany. Courtesy Bundesarchiv.
Nuclear Energy In Germany: A Brief History
Research and development of nuclear energy began in Germany in the 1950s. The first nuclear unit to be built was the 15-MW VAK Kahl boiling water reactor. It became the first nuclear reactor to deliver electricity to the grid system on 17 June 1961. In its 25 years of operation, VAK Kahl proved to be a valuable experimental facility. It was decommissioned in 1985.
Other small reactors, primarily for research and testing were also operating during this period, including the 52-MW MZFR pressurised heavy water reactor, the 13-MW AVR Jülich prototype pebble-bed reactor, and the 62-MW Rheinsberg VVER-70 plant, the first commercial nuclear power reactor in East Germany.
The first larger-scale reactor to begin commercial operation was the 237-MW Gundremmigen-A boiling water reactor unit in April 1967.
Scepticism about nuclear power began to grow during the early 1970s. An increasing number were opposed to the perceived risks of nuclear energy. In West Germany, names such as Wyhl and Brokdorf (nuclear power plants), Gorleben (waste management centre), Wackersdorf (reprocessing unit) and Kalkar (fast breeder reactor) became synonyms for the protests against nuclear power.
Following the Three Mile Island accident in the US in 1979, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in German cities to demand that all nuclear plants be shut down.
Large public protests against nuclear power took place throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The Greens, who became a nationwide force with their anti-nuclear campaign slogan “Atomkraft? Nein, Danke” (Nuclear Power, No Thanks), formed a political party in West Germany.
In 1990, the unified German government finished closing down last of eight nuclear power plants in the former Communist east.
In 2002, the Social Democrats (SPD) and Green party government, led by then-chancellor Gerhard Schröder, enacted a law to phase out nuclear energy.
After coming into power, Angela Merkel’s government – in a coalition with the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) – announced plans to reverse the law in 2010. The changes intended to extend the operating times at nuclear plants by between eight and 14 years.
The nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, in March 2011 resulted a major shift in Germany’s attitude towards nuclear power.
More than 40,000 protesters in Germany formed a 45-km human chain from the city of Stuttgart to a nearby nuclear plant to demonstrate against the government’s plans to extend the life of Germany’s nuclear power plants.
A few months later, Merkel did a complete U-turn on nuclear energy. On 30 June 2011, Berlin ordered the immediate shutdown of eight of the country's 17 commercial reactors. The decision also outlined a timeline for taking the rest of the nuclear plants offline by 2022.
Over 80% of parliamentarians in the Bundestag passed the nuclear phaseout plan. Only the Left party voted against the measure, saying they wanted a faster timeline.
Although the move was widely supported, the companies who own the nuclear power plants pushed back against the government with lawsuits over lost profits from the immediate shutdown of plants.
In 2017 Germany’s top court ruled that a government tax on spent nuclear fuel rods was illegal, enabling utility companies to claim back billions of euros.
In October 2022, Scholz ordered Germany’s three remaining commercial nuclear power plants to remain in operation until April “at the latest” as the energy crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine hurts the economy.