Germany’s nuclear phase-out entered its penultimate phase today, as the country shuts down half of its six nuclear power plants still in operation, marking the start of an 11-year plan.
As part of Germany’s energy transition policy, the nuclear power plants in Gundremmingen, Brokdorf and Grohnde will be decommissioned on December 31, 2021.
The Gundremmingen power station still produces 10 billion kWh of electricity per year, even though parts of it have already been closed, which is enough to supply electricity to the entire Munich metropolitan area.
The target of protests by the opposition to nuclear energy in the 1980s, the Brokdorf plant will close at midnight on New Year’s Eve, to the contempt of its supervisors.
“The last few days have been accompanied by a good dose of melancholy. We have been operating the plant for 35 years. We have maintained it, we have kept it at the best technical level and we have always operated it safely, ”revealed Guido Knott, Chairman of the Management Board of the operating company PreussenElektra.
However, no melancholy or remorse was felt by Karsten Hinrichsen, a longtime anti-nuclear activist known as the “Brokdorf Rebel”.
“I am quietly but surely delighted that the thing is now closed. It is not euphoria. Some people ask me if it is a victory. No it is not, it took way too much. time for that, ”Hinrichsen said.
By the end of 2022, Germany will have reached its target of total nuclear phase-out, set by Chancellor Angela Merkel on May 30, 2011, following the Fukushima disaster.
The plan represented a radical change of course on the part of Merkel’s ruling conservatives, who a few months earlier had agreed to extend the lifespan of Germany’s oldest power plants.
But it has met broad public support in a country with a powerful anti-nuclear movement, fueled first by fears of a Cold War conflict and then by disasters such as Chernobyl.
The oldest eight reactors were shut down immediately, with the remaining nine scheduled to follow in stages until 2022.
‘The village church’
In Gundremmingen, however, the decision was a tough pill to swallow.
The nuclear power plant is “as much a part of the village as the church” and it feels like “something is dying,” said Gerlinde Hutter, owner of a local guesthouse.
According to the former village mayor, Wolfgang Meye, it will take at least 50 years to remove all radioactive material from the site after the plant is decommissioned.
The German government is still looking for a long-term storage site for the country’s residual nuclear waste.
Gundremmingen is not the only German village facing big changes as the country struggles to implement its energy transition strategy.
Renewable energies have experienced a spectacular increase since 2011 and represented for the first time in 2020 more than 50% of the German energy mix, according to the Fraunhofer research institute, against less than 25% ten years ago.
The decline in the importance of nuclear power (12.5% in 2020) “has been offset by the development of renewable energies,” added Claudia Kemfert, energy expert at the DIW economic research institute.
Nuclear power plants have therefore not been replaced by coal, even though fossil fuels still represent almost a quarter of the electricity mix.
Germany’s plan to shut down all its coal-fired power plants by 2038
In fact, with the nuclear phase-out has been added another plan, announced in 2019, to shut down all coal-fired power plants in Germany by 2038.
This represents a particular challenge for Germany, which remains the world’s largest producer of lignite.
The extraction of lignite, very polluting, continues to lead to the destruction of villages in the west of the country in order to expand huge surface mines.
If Germany wants to free itself from lignite, renewable energies such as wind, solar, biomass and hydropower will have to represent 65% of the energy mix by 2030.
Yet the country, which has long been at the forefront of wind power in Europe, installed just 1.65 gigawatts (GW) of wind farms last year – the lowest level in a decade, according to the WindEurope defense group.
“To meet government targets, Germany would need to add 9.8 GW of solar and 5.9 GW of onshore wind per year,” Kemfert said.
But the development of new wind or photovoltaic energy production areas is complex, projects often encountering resistance from local residents and the risk of degradation of the landscape.
Unless storage and distribution can be improved via so-called virtual power plants, these new forms of energy do not have the same stability as thermal or nuclear.
To secure its supply, Germany could therefore be tempted to build more gas-fired power stations, but this would risk strengthening its dependence on Russia, as the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline illustrates.
A gas-fired power station is already under construction for the city of Leipheim, a stone’s throw from Gundremmingen.
How many factories are left in Germany?
After the closure of the nuclear power stations in Brokdorf, Gundremmingen and Grohnde, there are still three power stations:
- Emsland (Lower Saxony)
- Isar (Bavaria)
- Neckarwestheim (Baden-Württemberg)
These three remaining power plants are expected to be decommissioned by the end of next year, completing the 11-year phase-out.
However, the full exit will not be completed for a long time, as the post-operation phase and the gradual dismantling of the plants, under the responsibility of the operators, are expected to take many more years.