Nukes or Fossil Fuels? Germany Rejects False Choice

In response to the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in Japan, Germany has announced plans to go nuclear-free without increasing its reliance on fossil fuels. By ramping up investments in renewables, the German government plans to fight climate change while simultaneously avoiding the risks inherent in nuclear energy. If the plan is successful it could provide a model for other countries that want to shift to greener electricity grids.

In 2000 Germany passed the Nuclear Exit Law, which was supposed to end the country’s dependence on nukes by the year 2021. The last few years however have seen a push from Chancellor Angela Merkel to change the law and extend the life of the nuclear fleet. In 2010 with Merkel’s support, the government delayed the timeline for closing nuclear plants by twelve additional years. This move was unpopular with the public to begin with, and events in Japan have triggered a new wave of anti-nuclear fervor in Germany. In response Merkel and other leading politicians have reversed their positions on nuclear energy and are embracing a nuke-free future once again.

Merkel’s government is looking at speeding up the process for retiring nuclear plants, possibly on an even shorter timeline than originally proposed under the Nuclear Exit Law. However it’s notable that a shift away from nuclear power hasn’t prompted any significant push to burn more coal and other fossil fuels. Rather Germany plans to replace nuclear plants with renewable energy sources like wind and solar power. All the more impressive is the fact that Germany lacks the vast renewable resources of countries like the United States, parts of which are both windier and much sunnier than Germany. If Germany can phase out nuclear power and fossil fuels at the same time, other countries ought to be able to do the same.

Currently Germany generates slightly under a quarter of its electricity with nuclear power, similar to the United States. The country has seventeen nuclear plants, and the oldest plants will likely be first to be taken offline. Germany is already a leader in renewable energy, and renewables currently meet 17% of its electricity needs. The government hopes to increase this figure to 40% within ten years, and by 2050 Germany plans to be a 100% renewable economy.

All of this flies in the face of an assumption commonly encountered in the US, which holds countries must choose between fossil fuels and nuclear power. Germany seems positioned to successfully abandon both, without any of the dire consequences fossil fuel and nuclear advocates have predicted. Germany expects to have no problem keeping the lights on and adjusting its grid to run off renewable power sources. The United States should be fully capable of doing the same thing.

Fukushima has shown that modern nuclear power isn’t safe. Meanwhile climate change goes on, and the imperative to shift away from fossil fuels grows stronger every day. In the face of these two great threats to the planet’s livability the question isn’t whether to build nuclear power stations or fossil fuel plants. Rather, it’s how quickly can the world transition off both?

Photo credit: Paul J Everett