Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Opinion | Data on the German retreat from nuclear energy tell a cautionary tale

Opinion | Data on the German retreat from nuclear energy tell a cautionary tale

Hannah Ritchie is lead researcher at Our World in Data and a senior researcher at the University of Oxford.

In April, Germany closed its last three nuclear plants. Greenpeace cheered the end of a decades-long campaign to rid the nation of nuclear power.

It was celebrating an environmental disaster that the rest of the world should avoid. Whether countries want to build new nuclear plants, data suggest that keeping existing ones running is a win for the climate and for health. Germany’s numbers show why.

It has the second-most carbon-intensive electricity grid in the Group of Seven, beaten only by Japan, which is now restarting some of its nuclear plants. In Europe, only Poland and the Czech Republic have a more carbon-intensive mix — and Poland is building more nuclear to fix this. To produce one unit of electricity, Germany emits about 8.5 times more carbon dioxide than Sweden and about 4.5 times more than France. And those figures were from 2022 when Germany’s last three nuclear plants were still contributing around 6 percent of its power.

Few countries in Europe or North America depend as heavily on coal, which supplies roughly one-third of Germany’s electricity. That’s about twice the average in the European Union. In Spain, coal contributes 3 percent, in the United Kingdom, 2 percent. Countries that get less than 1 percent of their electricity from coal include France, Sweden, Austria, Portugal and Switzerland.

Germany is also set to be one of the last countries in Europe to rid itself of coal. Some have; others have committed to a phaseout by 2030. Germany’s current target is 2038. Even 2035, which it has discussed, would still make it one of the continent’s laggards.

Where did it all go wrong? Energiewende — the term now adopted for Germany’s energy transition plan — was first used by environmentalists in 1980. Then the rallying cry was “growth and prosperity without petroleum and uranium.”

Dumping nuclear energy was always a higher priority than ridding the nation of fossil fuels. In 2000, the coalition government of the Social Democrats and Green Party announced plans to move Germany to renewables. They set targets to phaseout nuclear power by 2022 and move away from fossil fuels later.

In 2010, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union embraced nuclear as a step on the way to renewables. She pushed back Germany’s deadline to phaseout by 12 years, but did a U-turn following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in Japan in 2011. Many German plants were taken offline immediately. Again the nation was to go uranium-free by 2022.

Last year, Germany was reconsidering. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the energy crisis presented a unique opportunity to postpone closing the remaining three plants. Yet the government postponed the deadline only until April to offset the loss of imported Russian gas.

This repeated rejection of nuclear energy has delayed Germany’s decarbonization by a decade.

Credit where it’s due, Germany has invested heavily in renewables. Solar and wind now supply roughly one-third of its electricity — about four times more than in 2010. As an early adopter, it has made these technologies cheaper and more scalable for other countries, too. But this surge in renewables is no outlier. Per person, the Netherlands, Finland and Spain produce almost as much solar and wind. It is Denmark, Sweden and Ireland that top the list.

Worse, the fall in nuclear power has offset more than 70 percent of the energy Germany has added from renewables. Since 2010, renewables output has gone up by 145 terawatt-hours (TWh) — one terawatt-hour is the annual electricity use for around 140,000 Germans. Meanwhile nuclear energy production has gone down by 104 TWh and coal by just 82 TWh. So the nation’s net increase in low-carbon energy was just 41 TWh.

The counterfactual is sobering to crunch. Had Germany kept its nuclear plants running from 2010, it could have slashed its use of coal for electricity to 13 percent by now. Today’s figure is 31 percent.

The main argument campaigners level against nuclear power is that it is dangerous. In fact, worldwide, coal causes the most deaths per unit of electricity produced, including through local air pollution. Germany’s story is a case in point. Lignite — the type of coal that the country relies on — is the dirtiest, releasing sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and other particulates. Some estimate that these pollutants have caused thousands of excess deaths since Merkel’s reversal, due to cardiovascular disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer.

Already more lives might have been lost just in Germany because of air pollution from coal power than from all of the world’s nuclear accidents to date, Fukushima and Chernobyl included. And that doesn’t include the potential future toll from climate change. Even assuming the highest estimates proposed for nuclear deaths — including those from the stress of having to evacuate Fukushima, say — gives comparable figures.

Germany’s retreat from nuclear power is a cautionary tale. To close nuclear plants is to lose a large, safe, low-carbon source of energy and run the biggest risk of all: failing to avert catastrophic climate change.

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