With the German parliamentary elections taking place on 27 September this year, Paul Breeze examines the political options for the prospective candidates concerning the country’s nuclear phase-out policy. Grand Coalition or no Grand Coalition, the issue looks set to remain a political hot potato.

Paul Breeze

When the government of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder finalized a political deal in June 2000 to phase out nuclear power in Germany the actual closure of most of the country’s nuclear capacity was still a long way off. The deal was the result of an election pledge by Schroeder’s Social Democrats and their coalition partners, the Green Party. When the law was passed, it was hoped that by the time the closures became necessary there would be sufficient renewable capacity available to make the loss of the nuclear capacity appear insignificant.

The current state of nuclear power in Germany Source: Informationskreis Kernenergie
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Today that policy is still in place but its enactment is no longer a distant prospect. Between 2010 and 2012 seven of the country’s 17 operating reactors are due to close, having reached the end of the life agreed for each reactor in 2000.

Unfortunately, in spite of a significant increase in renewable capacity in Germany, the imminent loss of this nuclear capacity does not appear insignificant. And with new factors such as global warming and energy security to take into account, maintenance of the 2000 phase-out could become a political issue in German federal elections due in 2009.

The coalition that currently holds power in Germany involves the left-leaning Social Democrats (the SPD, the party which enacted the original phase-out) as junior partner and the conservative Christian Democrats (the CDU) as senior partner. The two struck an election deal in 2005 to retain the nuclear phase-out policy, or rather not to challenge it, something the present CDU Chancellor, Angela Merkel, would have probably attempted otherwise.

The Merkel Method

The current Chancellor has made clear several times that she favours nuclear generation. If the CDU was to gain an outright victory in the 2009 elections it would almost certainly reverse the policy, extending the lives of existing nuclear power plants and building new ones.

The SPD remains committed to abandoning nuclear power although it has shown recent signs that it might compromise, though not to the extent of building new plants. Meanwhile the Green Party, which was part of the original coalition that abandoned nuclear generation, remains staunchly opposed. If the issue does become a factor dividing the parties in this year’s federal elections, the politicians will have to try and gauge the electorate’s mood today in regard of nuclear power.

Professor Hans Mathias Kepplinger, managing director of the Institute for Journalism at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, believes Germany’s voters have become more pragmatic about the nuclear option. Opinion polls suggest that the young in particular do not approach the question with the same ideological fervour as voters of earlier generations.

If presented with a choice between nuclear power and global warming, more voters today would probably opt for nuclear power. And while opponents of nuclear power will argue that it is not a question of one or the other but of neither of these, others may well put the arguments in just this way.

Public opinion shifting

There is also poll evidence of a shift in public opinion over the issue. According to figures from an ARD poll published by Der Spiegel in December 2007, 58 per cent of German voters agreed with the view that the phasing out of nuclear power in Germany was correct, while 36 per cent disagreed. By July 2008 the proportion agreeing had fallen to 51 per cent and those disagreeing had risen to 44 per cent. According to these figures, at least, a lead of 22 percentage points in favour of maintaining the policy has fallen to seven percentage points in six months.

According to The Economist, other figures indicated that by the middle of 2008, 54 per cent of voters were in favour of extending the agreed life of existing nuclear plants.

Maintenance of the closure policy has come under further strain as a result of a change of heart in Sweden. Sweden led the way among western democracies planning to turn their backs on nuclear power when in 1980 it held a referendum that led to the country deciding to phase out nuclear power. This was seen as a landmark among the anti-nuclear movement and as a result the country was widely held as the model for other countries attempting the same route. But, although Sweden did close the two reactors at its Barseback plant in 1998 and 2001, ten remain. And in 1997 the government decided to postpone the closure of further plants for three decades while it sought to fill the gap left by nuclear generation.

The present Swedish government has now decided to allow new nuclear plants to be built to replace the ten existing reactors. Sweden is going to the electorate in 2010 and this could become a political issue there too.

Planned Shutdowns

At the heart of the debate in Germany is its existing nuclear capacity. This comprises 17 reactors with a combined generating capacity of 20 339 MW. A further 19 plants have already been shut down, mainly prototypes, demonstration projects and experimental facilities, as well as Soviet VVER reactors.

And in theory several of the still-operational plants should either have shut last year or are due to shut this year. They include Biblis A and B, Neckarwestheim 1 and Brunsbüttel.

Under the terms of the phase-out agreed with the German utilities and finally signed in 2001, the total amount of energy that could be produced by the operating German nuclear plants over their lives was set at 2623 TWh, equivalent to an average lifetime for each plant of 32 years. Once this limit was reached, the plants were to close. The two least economical plants were shut in 2003 and 2005. That left the 17 plants, and these all remain operational in 2009. However the four plants mentioned previously will all have exceeded this age by the end of the year.

If you look at the output from these plants they suggest that the utilities have been delaying the closure of the units by either not operating them (Biblis A) or by reducing output. Since the agreement signed in 2001 related to the amount of power the plants produced, it can be argued, by cutting output the plant can continue to operate for longer. The thinking behind this strategy appears to be the hope that there will be a change of government and a change of heart over the closures before any need actually be shut down. Such a position cannot be maintained for much longer.

The total nuclear output in Germany in 2007 was 141 TWh. This compares to gross generation of 639 GWh in Germany that year. The largest source of power was lignite fired power plants, which generated 23.5 per cent of the total. Nuclear was the second largest with 23.3 per cent.


The dilemma for the German government is that even though the country now has a significant renewable capacity, this capacity provides nowhere near the same amount of electricity as existing nuclear plants. Neither is there any realistic hope that it can do so in the near future.

If, therefore, nuclear power is abandoned and the existing plants are closed, then Germany would have no alternative but to turn to fossil fuel, probably lignite, to fill the gap. Burning fossil fuels will inevitably mean, at least in the short-term, that the country will start emitting more greenhouse gases.

Natural gas would provide a less polluting alternative than either hard coal or lignite. However the annual confrontation between Ukraine and Russia over natural gas prices, played out again over this winter with devastating effect in some European countries, means that no European nation can afford to rely too heavily on natural gas for power generation if it is to maintain energy security. This is especially significant for Germany, which imports 40 per cent of its gas from Russia. In consequence, coal remains the most secure option, but also the most contentious from a global warming perspective.

According to Der Spiegel, the German Finance Minister Michael Glos, who is a member of the CDU, has already hinted that if Germany is to continue with the plan to phase out nuclear power then it will have to appeal to the European Union to permit it to release more carbon dioxide than its current target allows. This may be an attempt to put political pressure on the CDU’s coalition partner, the SPD, in order to try and get the latter to modify its position, but the issue is real enough.

The Political Options

Given this situation, what are the options now with regard to the phasing out of nuclear power and how will they play politically? Under the current arrangement, all nuclear power plants are to be phased out by 2021. One option would be to extend the life of these plants beyond the 2021 limit that was agreed in 2001. This would be the least-worst option for the nuclear opponents and there are signs from some SPD members that the party would consider this compromise in return for a firm commitment that nuclear power will finally be abandoned entirely and no new plants will be built.

The second option is the one favoured by the CDU, to reinstate the nuclear option as part of the energy mix and to build a new generation of nuclear plants to replace the existing fleet as it is retired. Once this route is chosen the lifetime of existing plants would almost certainly be extended too. Other than these two, there are no realistic alternatives except to stick to the agreed phase-out with no compromise.

The question for both parties, and for the other parties contesting the 2009 elections, is whether there is political capital to be made out of raising the profile of the nuclear debate. The main issue over which the election is going to be fought will be the economy as Germany, along with its European neighbours and the rest of the world, faces a deep recession that by summer may become a depression. Against this backdrop, the question of whether to shut nuclear power plants or not will probably appear incidental to many.

Those in favour of retaining the nuclear option may be able to point to the prospect of new investment in nuclear research and manufacturing if the phase-out is abandoned. And then there are arguments about the high cost of electricity in Germany today and whether it will rise further if nuclear power plants shut.

In the end, however, unless there are clear indications that there are votes to be won by either main party from raising the issue, the future of Germany’s nuclear fleet will probably depend on how the current government’s handling of the economic crisis is perceived within the country. For it is that which will determine who holds power at the end of 2009.