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Germany is about to shut down its last nuclear power plants, and instead is burning gas and coal: these are the doubts that this strategy leaves us

Germany has already faced the final stretch of its plan to execute the scheduled shutdown of all its nuclear power plants. The accident that took place at the Fukushima nuclear power plant (Japan) on March 11, 2011 precipitated the definitive blackout of the German nuclear facilities. The agenda that the German government had managed until then contemplated a staggered closure that would conclude with the closure of the last nuclear power plant in 2036. But Fukushima changed everything.

When the accident occurred at the Japanese nuclear plant, eight of the seventeen nuclear reactors that Germany had operating at that time were in the shutdown phase because they were being checked. Two had had several technical incidents that required inspection and maintenance, and the other six were undergoing stress tests to ensure that they could be operated safely.

The plan was for those eight nuclear reactors to return to activity when they were ready and had passed all the safety tests established by the Nuclear Energy Agency (AEN), but the Fukushima accident caused the German Government to decide keep them off permanently. However, this was not his only decision. The remaining nine nuclear reactors would be gradually shut down, but the phased closure would not be completed in 2036; it would do so in 2022. Fourteen years earlier than what the German government’s initial strategy proposed.

The six German nuclear power plants in operation produce 8.5 GW

The German nuclear blackout is just around the corner. The German executive has carried out with firm pulse the closure of the nuclear power plants that he scheduled during the months after the Fukushima accident, and currently only six of them remain active. All of them generate between the 1,344 MW of the Gundremmingen facility, which is the most modest in quantitative terms, and the 1,485 MW of the Isar-2 nuclear power plant, which together add up to 8.5 GW. And it is a lot of electrical energy. A lot.

The six German nuclear power plants that remain active together generate 8.5 GW. And it’s a lot of electrical energy

The energy transition in which we have embarked as a society is very positive because it seeks to drastically reduce the emission of greenhouse gases in order to mitigate as much as possible the impact of the climate emergency. Shut down a nuclear power plant per se can fit into a context in which renewable energy sources are gaining more and more relevance, but we must not lose sight of the fact that it is essential to replace them with other energy sources, and it is not always feasible that this alternative source is renewable and non-polluting .

It is a fact: the early closure of its nuclear power plants has forced Germany to turn to gas and coal. Otherwise, it would not be able to meet all its energy needs because its renewable energy base has not yet been able to sustain them. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, outlined very clearly the consequences of bringing forward the closure of its nuclear power plants at the World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland, on January 23, 2019:

Getting rid of nuclear power plants has a price. A very high one if we stick exclusively to its environmental impact

“We will carry out the progressive shutdown of our nuclear energy with the aim of completing it in 2022. But we have a huge challenge ahead because the only energy sources that are capable of responding to our energy needs they are coal and lignite [es un tipo de carbón muy abundante de origen mineral]. Germany has abandoned local coal production, but not lignite, which is relatively cheap. The problem is that lignite is an energy source that emits a lot of carbon dioxide […] Natural gas will again play an essential role for us for decades to come […]».

Merkel’s statements at the Davos Forum left no room for doubt: currently get rid of nuclear power plants it has a price. A very high one if we stick exclusively to its environmental impact. Nuclear energy generates waste, that is indisputable, but leaving aside for this time the debate about the economic and environmental consequences that its management entails, we cannot ignore that it does not entail the emission of polluting gases. And this last characteristic is very important in the context of the climatic emergency in which we are immersed.

At the beginning of last May we had the opportunity to speak with Pedro Fresco, a renowned expert in energy markets and renewable energies who currently serves as General Director of Ecological Transition in the Generalitat Valenciana. Pedro explained to us in a clear and absolutely reasonable way why doing without nuclear power plants today is possible, but it is not recommended. His speech describes the Spanish energy reality, but what we have seen so far reflects that it also fits very well in the current context of Germany:

“Now, in 2021, we cannot close all nuclear power plants. Doing so would lead us to increase carbon dioxide emissions »

“Right now, in the year 2021, we cannot do without nuclear energy. We cannot close all nuclear power plants, but not because we are going to have a supply problem, but because doing so would lead to increase carbon dioxide emissions. We have enough combined cycle capacity to shut down all nuclear power plants tomorrow, but the problem is that we would be introducing carbonized energy, and this would go against our decarbonisation targets, ”Pedro explains.

“For this reason, a massive shutdown is not feasible. Nuclear power plants will eventually shut down, but they have to close little by little. The reason why a closure schedule has been made, in addition to technical and logistical reasons, is not to affect emissions from the electrical system in a significant way. In 2021 it is not feasible to close them all, but it is feasible to do it little by little, “argues Pedro with conviction.

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The Fukushima accident caused the German Government to decide to advance the closure of its nuclear power plants fourteen years in anticipation of possible technical incidents that could compromise their safety, but it is evident that it has not had time to deploy the renewable energy base you need to replace your nuclear park and solve your energy needs.

In fact, it seems reasonable to assume that to generate the 8.5 GW currently produced by the six nuclear facilities that remain active Germany it’s going to have to burn a lot of lignite. And also a lot of gas. This is precisely what Angela Merkel prepared us for in her speech at the Davos Economic Forum.

Germany’s strategy raises several reasonable doubts

The energy transition we have embarked on brings many challenges that are not easy to take on. Each country is opting for the strategy it considers most appropriate, but the situation in which Germany currently finds itself invites us to reach several conclusions. This country is one of the most industrialized countries on the planet, and, as such, it is also one of the countries that emits the most carbon dioxide. The arrival of the pandemic has distorted the figures because it has caused that during 2020 many industries reduce their production capacityBut we can momentarily divert our gaze to 2019, just before the COVID-19 disease raged.

In 2019, just before the pandemic, Germany was the sixth country that emitted the most carbon dioxide. At the top of this classification is, as we can guess, China

According to the Knoema consultancy, during that year Germany was in the sixth position in the classification of the most polluting countries on the planet. Ahead were, in order from highest to lowest carbon dioxide emission capacity, China, the United States, India, Russia and Japan. And then Germany appears. The picture probably will not have changed much in the last year and a half, but there is no doubt that when the latter country closes its last nuclear power plants in 2022 it will be forced to increase your polluting emissions because it will have to burn more lignite and more gas.

Gundremmingencentralnuclear
Gundremmingencentralnuclear

The Gundremmingen nuclear power plant in Germany will cease its activity definitively before the end of 2021.

Germany’s commitment to renewable energy is firm, and in the medium term its plan seeks that most of its energy production has a renewable and non-polluting origin, but it is not yet clear when will that milestone come. And in the meantime, as Angela Merkel foreshadowed, this country will be forced to increase its greenhouse gas emissions. The impact that this strategy will have on the environment will depend, logically, on how long the use of polluting energy sources is prolonged.

When all German nuclear power plants are closed in France in 2022, no less than 58 nuclear reactors will remain active.

The other great doubt hanging over Germany’s strategy lies in its foundations. As we have seen, the possibility of an incident that compromises the safety of its nuclear facilities has triggered the relatively hasty closure of all of them. However, when in 2022 all German nuclear power plants are closedIn France, no less than 58 nuclear reactors will remain active. Only the United States has more such facilities. And, as we all know, France and Germany are neighbors, and both reside in the very heart of Europe.

It is clear that it is not easy at all to identify the strategy that will allow us to travel the path of the energy transition in the safest and least traumatic way possible. And it is not clear what it will be the role that nuclear energy will have in the future. Some experts, such as Alfredo García, better known on Twitter as Nuclear Operator, advocate the importance of nuclear energy as a backup for renewables, but others argue that in the medium term we will be able to do without it completely. Whatever happens, we can be sure that time will put each strategy in its place. Let us trust that the people who have the responsibility to design them will make the right decisions.

Images | Nuclear Forum | Felix konig