Germany’s Energy Taboo: Nuclear and the energy crisis
21 Apr 2023 – Written by Akshithaa Sellvarajah
- Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has resulted in the West imposing sanctions on Russia, to which Russia has retaliated through the “weaponisation” of its energy supply.
- Europe now faces rising energy costs exposing an era of European energy policy steeped with Russian energy dependency.
- The Germans are currently burning coal to meet the demand; however, coal is a fossil fuel which produces high levels of CO2 and if Germany want to decarbonise and reach net-zero, coal is not the answer.
- Germany, for decades, has been opposed to using nuclear energy. As energy prices soar, the Germans need to revisit their energy taboo.
Contemporary geopolitical discourses are routed through the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Consequently, it has exposed systemic German energy policy failures fragmented by international politics. This paper will explore the extent to which nuclear power can help alleviate Germany’s energy crisis, while focusing on energy security. This paper will be split into four sections. The first section will briefly outline Germany’s history with nuclear power. The second section will analyse the extent to which nuclear power can provide Germany with energy security and thus the energy crisis. The third section will compare the use of nuclear with coal – a method currently being used in Germany. The final section will state the extent to which nuclear power can answer Germany’s energy crisis and consider whether nuclear power is part of the solution or part of the problem on a global scale.
For decades, nuclear power has been one of Germany’s most cutting debates, but with Russia cutting gas, the Germans must reassess their energy taboos.
Germany’s Nuclear Prerogative
Since the 1970s, nuclear use has sparked widespread public controversies and has been fiercely opposed by the German Green Party. Germany’s position in the Cold War is partially responsible, as the nuclear weapons deployed by the US and the USSR placed Germany at the heart of any potential conflict between the two superpowers (Alperovitz & Bird, 1996). This resulted in growing “German angst” due to fears of nuclear war and fallout (Thompson, 2022 p.252). This was exacerbated by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, which intensified nuclear-related anxieties (Joppke, 1990).
Resultant in 2000, the then coalition government, comprising the Social Democrats and the Green Party, set to gradually eliminate the use of nuclear power by restricting plant lifespans to 32 years (Schulze, 2017). In 2010 under Angela Merkel’s administration, the operational lifespan of nuclear plants was increased by 14 years in hopes of diversifying energy streams and phasing out fossil fuels (Von Rottenburg, 2012). However, this decision was quickly overturned due to public outcry following the 2011 Japan Fukushima disaster, which shut eight nuclear plants down (Thompson, 2022). As a result, the last three were due to close as part of the Energiewende, under the Angela Merkel administration, and set the road to a nuclear free and climate neutral energy system by 2045 (Wiliarty, 2013).
However, the war in Ukraine has created a European energy crisis that comes at a critical moment for Germany, as their ambitions to become global leaders in the transition to climate neutrality are at the brink. Russia has cut off gas streams through the Nord-Stream 1 pipeline- the primary route of supplying Europe with natural gas (ibid.). Russia has cited shutting down these pipes as “maintenance”; however, this move has been seen as punishment by the Kremlin for Western embargoes on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine (Meredith, 2022). Germany had been relying on Russia to provide them with cheap gas resulting in Germany entering an era of heavy energy dependence, which had an import share of 55% in 2020 and totalled 46 billion cubic meters (bcm) in 2021 (Halser & Paraschiv, 2022). Under fears of the looming energy crisis, current German chancellor Olaf Scholz has agreed to keep the three remaining nuclear power plants open (Chazan, 2022).
The question raised now is to what extent nuclear power is the answer to Germany’s energy crisis.
Nuclear and Energy Security
Nuclear use can contribute to increased energy security as streams of energy supply are diversified; therefore, if a geopolitical or economic shock hits one energy market, there are alternative sources to generate energy. The invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated Germany’s dependence on Russian gas and the crucial need for it to diversify its supply to protect itself from future and current supply-side shocks.
Russia’s position as the primary gas supplier to the EU has allowed it to weaponise gas supply as a form of retaliation (Meredith, 2022). As evidenced in Figure 1, Russia restricting its gas supply has caused gas and electricity prices to skyrocket. The spikes in figure one correlate with war breaking out and Europe placing sanctions on Russia. This is because basic market mechanism dictates that when the supply is low (Russia cutting gas supplies) and demand is high (EU energy policy over dependencies), the market will raise the gas price to ration out demand, this phenomenon is known as demand destruction. As a result, the cost of electricity will also rise as gas is needed to produce electricity. In Germany, electricity prices averaged 51.89 EUR/MWh (TE, 2021). Therefore, using nuclear energy will reduce demand and market share dependency on gas as Germany will have other sources of energy supply and thus can protect itself from energy market shocks instead of being dependent on just one stream.
Albeit the question here is what if uranium supply is weaponised, can countries truly achieve long-term energy security if they still import fuel and raw materials? Yergin (1988) defined “secure” as domestic. The uranium required to power the nuclear reactors will have to be imported, although the nuclear plants will be in Germany (Dempsey, 2022). This may mirror current gas and fossil fuel dependencies and shift the Anthropocene into an era of uranium dependency, leaving it vulnerable to the weaponisation of uranium, which may mimic what Russia is doing right now. In recent weeks, the cost of uranium has increased due to scarce supply, resulting in increased demand as countries rushed to gain uranium with the restricted gas supply (ibid.). The cost of raw uranium, referred to as “yellowcake,” has increased by approximately 60%. It currently trades at a nine-year high of almost $50 per pound (ibid.). The market is said to be nearing a “tipping” point resulting from the recent boom, and with demand increasing at exponential rates, uranium prices are beginning to rise (ibid.). Therefore, the use of nuclear may alleviate current supply-side gas demands. However, in the long term, the use of uranium may leave Germany vulnerable to geopolitical shocks if the supply is restricted in the form of retaliation.
However, unlike other technologies, nuclear plants generate electricity from very small amounts of fuel (Adamantiades & Kessides, 2009). Dependent on the model, a plant can operate without needing new fuel for up to 24 months (ibid.). Further, the new fuel for nuclear plants can be stored for up to several years, contributing to increased energy security protection as sudden energy market shocks are minimised (ibid.). Therefore, it does not mirror exactly the chain of events resulting from fossil fuel and gas supply shocks, as there is a time lag. For example, geopolitical tensions leading to importing countries restricting supply would give exporting countries such as Germany more time to find other supply streams, therefore minimising energy cost spikes due to shocks- such as what has happened with Russia and gas.
Moreover, scholars such as Helm (2002) argue that the crucial goal of energy policy is to equate demand with a secure supply. Corroborating with the IEA (2022) world energy outlook that highlighted the need for energy efficiency and behavioural measures to avoid mismatches between demand and supply. Nuclear may be a viable option as nuclear power is incredibly efficient and can provide a secure supply of energy as it can operate in all weather, day, and night. Further, nuclear energy has the highest capacity factor (US Department of Energy, 2021). It is nearly two times more reliable than natural gas and coal and three times more reliable than wind and solar (ibid.).
Nonetheless, uranium is non-renewable. The transition from one non-renewable energy source to another less depleted non-renewable may create a negative feedback loop. For long-term energy security, it is imperative to invest in renewables. Further, there is uncertainty about uranium supply; the world nuclear association estimates nuclear stockpiles to last 90 years and, although there could be future investment into gaining more supply there is still uncertainty (WNA, 2022). In principle, the extent to which nuclear can provide Germany with energy security is 90 years, notwithstanding the threat of high prices and the potential weaponisation of nuclear supply. Therefore, although nuclear energy is powerful and can operate in all weathers and times, uranium will eventually run out and so can only help Germany with the current energy crisis.
Germany is also running out of nuclear fuel, and it does not help that Russia is its biggest supplier (Weise, 2022). Russia is the second-biggest supplier of uranium to European nuclear power plants. According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA, 2022), Russia provides about 35% of the enriched uranium globally (ibid.). According to German nuclear power plant operator Preussen Elektra, Germany’s last three reactors are also mainly running on Russian and Kazakh uranium (ibid.). So, if Germany does switch to nuclear, they may become nuclear reliant on Russia, which leads to the same problem they have with gas. However, Germany could get uranium from other countries too.
In the transitionary phase, nuclear power may provide supply-side electricity relief, but it cannot provide long term energy security due to the nature of uranium. Germany has entered a crisis due to its overdependence on Russian gas. Therefore, it would be counterproductive for Germany to base any new energy policies/decisions on non-renewables and imports. It is important to note that Germany’s nuclear and coal are alternatives that levy the demand on natural gas, however they do not completely replace the energy as it is nonbinary. But, in the transitionary phase, nuclear can provide Germany relief, especially considering Germany already has nuclear plants.
Nuclear vs. Coal
Currently, Germany is burning coal and filling their gas storages with liquefied natural gas (LNG) to cope with the energy crisis (Schmitz, 2022). Consequently, the price of gas and electricity has decreased as shown in Figure 2. The falling prices correlate to decreasing gas demands. Demand has decreased by 7 percent due to consumers being careful with their energy usages coupled with government’s deliberate demand-reduction measures (Clark, 2022). However, some have questioned Germany’s use of coal over nuclear.
Germany choosing to burn coal might result in an annual rise in emissions of around 30 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (Appunn et al., 2021). In addition, burning coal contributes to high amounts of acid rain and greenhouse gas emissions (Keeney & Sicherman, 1983). One of the main reasons against nuclear use is that it is unsafe, but coal is also unsafe. Each year, thousands of coal miners lose their lives in accidents, and airborne contaminants can adversely affect the lungs and heart (ibid.).
Nonetheless, the use of coal is resultant to Germany having coal reserves corresponding to 154.6 times its annual consumption, meaning it has about 155 years of coal left (WM, 2022). As mentioned above, uranium is running out, and the leading supplier is Russia. But, with Germany’s targets of eliminating the use of fossil fuels and going climate neutral, the use of coal is inefficient.
To conclude, nuclear power is the answer to Germany’s energy crisis in the transitionary phase but should not be used as a long-term strategy. Germany should use its existing nuclear plants to generate nuclear power to protect itself from rising energy costs as a form of energy security. Further, nuclear should be used instead of coal, as coal releases large amounts of carbon dioxide. However, Germany should not use nuclear power as a long-term strategy. Germany and many other European countries have entered a period of crisis due to over-dependencies on Russian gas. Thus, it would be counterproductive to base new energy policies/decisions on non-renewable resources and imports. It is imperative for long-term energy solutions be based on domestic renewables so nations can be truly self-reliant and thus not leave vulnerable to supply side shocks. However, nuclear energy is the answer to the now.
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Sellvarajah, A. (2023) Germany’s Energy Taboo: Nuclear and the energy crisis, IDRN, 21 April. Available at: https://idrn.eu/germanys-energy-taboo-nuclear-and-the-energy-crisis [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].