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Germany's nuclear power phaseout turns off environmentalists

After Germany last year committed to closing its nuclear reactors, it's relying more on coal and importing power from neighbors that use nuclear energy.

April 20, 2012|By Aaron Wiener, Los Angeles Times
  • Demonstrators at the nuclear power plant Gundremmingen in southern Germany in March. Now that the government is planning to shut down nuclear plants, some activisits say poor planning and political opportunism have actually increased the toll on the environment.
Demonstrators at the nuclear power plant Gundremmingen in southern Germany… (Timm Schamberger, Associated…)

KLEINENSIEL, Germany — When the German government shut down half the country's nuclear reactors after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, followed two months later by a pledge to abandon nuclear power within a decade, environmentalists cheered.

A year later, however, criticism of the nuclear shutdown is emerging from a surprising source: some of the very activists who pushed for the phaseout.

They say poor planning of the shutdown and political opportunism by the government have actually worsened the toll on the environment in Germany, and Europe, at least in the short term.

To make up for the lost nuclear power, which supplied 22% of Germany's electricity before the phaseout began, the country has increased its reliance on brown coal, a particularly high emitter of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and a major contributor to global warming. Brown coal now supplies 25% of Germany's electricity, up from 23% a year ago.

Previously a net exporter of electricity, Germany now imports as much electricity as it sells abroad. Removing so much German electricity from the market has benefited power companies in neighboring countries that rely heavily on coal and nuclear power, thereby undermining Germany's environmental goals and its nuclear safety concerns.

Although abandoning nuclear power is expected to eventually clear the way for the development of renewable energy, in which Germany is already a world leader, the environmental effect so far has been problematic.

Last year's shuttering of eight of the country's 17 reactors has led to an increase in carbon dioxide emissions of 25 million tons annually in Europe, said Laszlo Varro of the International Energy Agency, a European intergovernmental organization.

Klaus Toepfer, the former German environment minister who headed the commission to advise the government on the phaseout, worries that "the great opportunities of this energy transition" are being squandered.

Although he supported Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to shutter Germany's nuclear plants, Toepfer said the execution of the policy has been fumbling and haphazard.

"A big project needs a professional project manager; it needs monitoring, where people tell us every year where we stand and what adjustments we need to make — standard things for a big project," Toepfer said. "We're not seeing that from the administration right now, at least not sufficiently."

Merkel's administration never formulated a coherent strategy for switching to new forms of energy or for upgrading the country's electricity grid, critics say. Without such improvements, the grid cannot always transmit power south to Germany's main population and industrial centers as fast as the offshore wind farms in the North Sea can produce it.

"We have a government where half of the administration does not agree with the starting point that the phasing-out program was the right thing to do," said Cem Oezdemir, co-chairman of Germany's Green Party. "So what you can see is that the second part after you decided to phase out, that you change your electricity structure and that you have a master plan for energy policy, that never was really agreed upon."

"The government did it not because they were convinced," Oezdemir said of the decision to abandon nuclear power. "They did it because they were losing elections."

Only six months before the Fukushima disaster, Merkel had decided to extend, not curtail, the life span of Germany's nuclear power plants, a move that aroused vigorous public opposition. After the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, she made a dramatic reversal, announcing that half of Germany's nuclear plants would be shut down immediately and the remainder within a decade.

To some residents in the northwestern German village of Kleinensiel, Merkel's sudden change of heart was born of political motives.

"There was a lot of frustration," said Boris Schierhold, mayor of the municipality of Stadland, which includes Kleinensiel. "People lost a little trust in political decision-making."

Kleinensiel is home to the Unterweser plant, the largest nuclear facility in the world when it started generating electricity in 1979. The village lives and breathes nuclear power; residents can tell you exactly how long it takes to decommission a plant and when Unterweser was constructed and brought on line.

In the good years, Unterweser had as many workers, 700, as the town did residents. Kleinensiel's guesthouses filled up and businesses boomed whenever inspectors came to town on their regular visits.

But since Unterweser was shut down a year ago, that's all changed. On a recent afternoon, Kleinensiel's sole restaurant was closed, as was its snack kiosk. No one answered the door at two guesthouses.

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