Germany urgently needs to save CO2 – at least if the country wants to achieve the goals set by the federal government. The fourth largest economy in the world is expected to produce 55 percent fewer greenhouse gases in just nine years, in 2030, than in 1990. In Germany, electricity generation is the largest single item on this CO2 calculation. Wouldn’t it be wise to continue using an existing technology that emits comparatively few greenhouse gases? Wouldn’t it be sensible to keep the German nuclear power plants running in order to achieve the climate targets?
Yes, nuclear power plants also produce greenhouse gases. As early as 2007, the Öko-Institut calculated that the mining of uranium as a fuel, the construction of the reactors and the production of building materials produced around 31 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour of electricity produced in German nuclear power plants. Block C of the nuclear power plant in Grundremmingen, which is to be shut down at the end of next year and provides around 11 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, is therefore responsible for around 350,000 tons of carbon dioxide. But compared to other fossil fuels, the emissions are minimal: the Neurath lignite power station on the Lower Rhine produces 31 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, three times as much – but with around 32 million tons of CO2 it causes around 90 times the emissions.
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In addition, the six remaining German nuclear power plants have not yet reached their originally planned duration of 40 years. They are between 31 and 35 years old, so theoretically they could continue to be used beyond 2022. Then the six remaining reactors should actually go offline. Almost 14 percent of Germany’s electricity demand is currently covered by nuclear power plants, and almost 20 percent by lignite power plants. So why not switch off the “dirty” coal kilns and let the “clean” nuclear power plants continue to run in favor of the CO2 balance? In mathematical terms, the six nuclear power plants could easily replace the lignite-fired power plants in Neurath and Niederaussem – their emissions, when added together, are comparable to those of entire countries such as Bulgaria or Ireland.
The Netherlands are planning up to ten new reactors
In Germany there are repeatedly demands that nuclear power can make a contribution to energy generation with less CO2. At the beginning of the year, a position paper from the CDU appeared in which “small, modular reactors” were to be examined as a “possible variant for CO2-free energy production”. In the summer there were protests in front of German nuclear power plants organized by the Nuklearia association – for their continued operation. With the AfD, there is a party in the Bundestag that wants to completely reverse the nuclear phase-out, and top politicians have also spoken out in favor of the technology. For example, Saxony’s Prime Minister Michael Kretschmer said at the beginning of the year that he believed that Germany could re-enter nuclear power – it could help against climate change. Volkswagen boss Herbert Diess also caused a stir last year when he publicly took a stand in favor of nuclear power: “I would consider questioning the nuclear phase-out, yes, especially because we do not yet have sufficient renewable energy sources,” said VW -Manager at the time of “Zeit”.
Against the background of climate change, nuclear power appears to be regaining a new meaning outside of Germany’s borders. In the Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s government is examining re-entry on a large scale. The construction of three to ten reactors is under discussion. Poland is working on a new energy strategy that includes up to six reactors. New nuclear power plants are under construction in Finland, France and Great Britain. Dozens of new power plants are planned in China, India and Russia. In addition, research is being carried out in several countries on so-called “fourth generation” reactors, the waste products of which are said to be more harmless than naturally occurring uranium ore after a few hundred years.
In Germany, however, the debate is only conducted selectively for good reasons. The arguments against both a term extension and against re-entry are downright overwhelming. And waiting for the miracle reactor may be in vain.
“There are many reasons why opting out is almost impossible,” says Christoph Podewils from the Agora Energiewende think tank, “and that applies above all to the long-term planning of the energy companies that have been preparing for the exit for years.” He believes that it would trigger a “gigantic outcry” if the reactors were to stay connected to the grid any longer – “and not just from those who oppose nuclear power, but above all from those involved in this market.”