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Ditching Nord Stream for Nuclear

When hostilities between Russia and Ukraine erupted just a few weeks ago, NATO member states took measures to deter crisis by sending military aid, promising help, and imposing sanctions against Russia. Yet, Germany, a cornerstone of the European Union (EU) and leader on many issues, was relatively noncommittal and took days to impose sanctions in line with the rest of the EU. While such an inconspicuous initial stance may seem out of character, Germany’s early actions were likely driven by its aspirations for the now halted Nord Stream 2 project––a 760 mile gas pipeline designed to stretch from Russia to Germany. 

After declaring the phasing out of German nuclear power plants in 2011—on the basis that such an energy source is dangerous and dirty—Germany has become increasingly reliant upon foreign, namely Russian, energy imports. Such reliance should raise alarm bells, as it may force a country to choose between condoning the tyrannical aggressions of a resource-rich state and satisfying its own climate goals, or condemning the aggressor but losing a major energy source in the process. Unsurprisingly, Germany recently had to make this decision, and despite its early hesitation, the country chose to take an aggressive stance against Russia, jeopardizing a major energy source in the process. In order to resolve the nation’s current energy dilemma, establish energy independence, and achieve lofty climate goals, nuclear power must undergird Germany’s clean energy transition, and the government must use this crisis to persuade citizens and the anti-nuclear Green party to readopt nuclear power. Germany and its neighbors must acknowledge this fact, lest they become reliant on predatory states like Russia.

The current European energy crisis, coupled with Germany’s relinquishment of nuclear power, appears to be the main culprit behind the energy insecurity facing Germany. Increased demand for natural gas and fossil fuels—coupled with supply chain issues—has exacerbated preexisting issues in Europe’s energy market. This has led to a so-called “energy trilemma,” in which countries struggle to provide energy while remaining conscious of social impact, environmental sustainability, and security. This situation has benefited Russia, who supplies more than 40 percent of the European Union’s demand for natural gas. Being cleaner than coal, natural gas is a critical stopgap to the clean energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables. Germany is more reliant upon Russia than other countries; Gazprom, Russia’s state-run energy giant, supplies 50 to 75 percent of Germany’s gas. Such dependence has left Germany in a precarious position, and the sanctions imposed on Russian gas only exacerbate this condition. Prices are volatile, having risen from €16 to €79 per megawatt hour in one year. Moreover, Germany’s need for gas will only grow in coming years, as their three remaining nuclear power plants are scheduled to close at the end of 2022.

Highly publicized accidents––like Chernobyl and Fukushima––coupled with the complicated nature of disposing of radioactive waste have left nuclear power plants with a negative reputation. Yet, their efficiency, reliability, and lack of carbon emissions make them the perfect complement to wind and solar energy sources. Although the German anti-nuclear movement dates back to the 1970s, it first gained real traction after much of Germany was covered in nuclear fallout following the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Criticism and anti-nuclear action intensified during the Green party’s tenure in the federal government from 1998 to 2005, and political pressure after the 2011 Fukushima disaster led Angela Merkel’s government to announce the shutting of all plants by 2022. This decision not only led to Germany’s increased reliance on natural gas, but the German Ministry of Economics also estimated that the nuclear phase-out added $250 per year to an average three-person household’s energy expenditures.

Though Germany is currently heavily powered by pollutants, nuclear power plants generate energy through nuclear fission, a process devoid of chemical burning, and therefore, carbon emissions. Nuclear power plants then use only four to five percent the amount of fossil fuels required by natural gas plants, and this usage is mostly incurred during the initial construction of the plant. Once in operation, nuclear power plants are essentially carbon neutral. Additionally, nuclear power releases less radiation into the environment than other energy sources. As such, it appears that nuclear power’s primary issue is its image, one which although not entirely undeserved, must be tackled expeditiously. Adopting this source of energy would not only curb reliance on Russian gas, but it is also necessary for the EU to achieve its climate goals. The EU Green Deal endeavors to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, and curb 55 percent of emissions by 2030, a goal that would be difficult to achieve without nuclear power.

Germany’s shutdown of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline indicates that, despite Germany’s previously pacifist approach, it will still stand alongside the rest of the EU when confronting Russian aggression. The $11 billion pipeline, which was completed last year and would have delivered gas directly from Russia to Germany, assumed an ominous political dimension as Russia’s incursions into Ukraine intensified. Within the Social Democrats, Germany’s leading party, many politicians supported the pipeline, leading to their unclear stance against early Russian aggressions. Although Chancellor Olaf Scholz has proclaimed that Germany’s energy needs will continue to be met as they strive to diversify away from this reliance upon Russian exports, few alternatives present themselves. The Netherlands and Norway––both critical exporters of natural gas––have indicated that they will not be able to significantly ramp up natural gas production, raising key questions as to where Germany will source its energy. With few options left, Germany must reconsider its position on nuclear power and reverse the course it has undertaken. The German government must use this crisis as a means to convince the public that the readoption of nuclear power is essential, not only in the context of energy security, but also so that Germany can achieve its climate goals.

Historically, Germany’s 17 operational nuclear reactors produced 25 percent of the country’s energy supply. They did so efficiently and cleanly; even Merkel, who engineered their shutdown, proclaimed criticisms of nuclear energy as “absurd.” Since the beginning of these shutdowns, there has been an increase in Germany’s consumption of coal, which was the country’s top power source in 2021, and a reliance upon imported gas. This suggests that Germany’s predicament is the result of public outcry; now, convincing the public of nuclear energy’s merits is an urgent task. While Fukushima rightfully warranted an examination of the dangers of nuclear power, in a world with accelerating climate change and geopolitical tensions linked to competition over resources, this fallacious outlook must be revisited and, ultimately, remedied. The re-adoption of nuclear power would at least partially mitigate the energy dilemma while also tackling the climate crisis, rendering it pivotal for Germany’s, and the world’s, future.