In the second event of the webinar series Climate Change Solutions: Frontline Perspectives from Around the Globe, the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy welcomed Mr. R. Andreas Kraemer, Director of Ecologic Institute, Berlin, to the stage to address the nuclear power phase out in Germany. Speaking both to our international online audience and a live audience in Berlin, Mr. Kraemer offered a fascinating discussion on the true causes and triggers of Germany’s decision to cease production of electricity from nuclear power plants by 2022.
Though general perception (particularly outside of Germany) points toward the tragic catastrophe at Fukushima earlier this spring as the trigger for the dramatic shift, in truth, the nuclear endgame has been in play for years. Economics, rather than emotions, underlie the decision.
The decision to phase out nuclear is significant. No exception to the trend among many industrialized nations, Germany deployed nuclear power plants in the 1950s as a safe and reliable source of electricity, as well as a way to try to redeem nuclear technology after the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II. In 2010, nuclear provided 23 percent of Germany’s electricity. Phasing out this substantial industry will not be easy, but it does make sense.
The economics of nuclear are clear: Nuclear power is economically unsustainable without public subsidies. Private investment in the industry simply has not demonstrated willingness to pay for the associated risks. At the same time, political and public dissatisfaction with nuclear has grown, matched by increasing support for renewable energy.
Mr. Kraemer explained how the successful deployment of renewable energy in Germany has shifted the way Germans envision electricity grids. Rather than maintaining a grid of large, centrally placed power plants, Germany seeks a smarter, more efficient grid fed by distributed generation supplemented by strategic and economical larger plants. Widespread public support for renewable energy justified the creation of German policies that promote renewable energy. These policies ultimately jumpstarted Germany’s now self-sustaining renewable energy industries. In a climate constrained world, this robust and growing portfolio of renewable energy opens the door to phasing out nuclear.
A far cry from simply shutting down plants, the German government orchestrated a strategic, orderly phase-out of nuclear, working in collaboration with the nuclear industries to smooth the transition for the industry and the public. Essentially, the phase-out strategy allows nuclear plants to continue running through the end of their useful life, but there will be no investment in extending plant life and certainly no new nuclear.
Can the US catch up with Germany? Mr. Kraemer says “yes!” The US has plenty of energy from the sun and wind – more “energy potential,” in fact, than Germany. What’s missing is political will and, to some extent, maturity of the renewable energy industries. We need to learn from Germany’s experience. Looking at the economics (in which nuclear power has no self-sustaining business case) and the environmental and social risks associated with the technology, Mr. Kraemer’s proposition is that the United States (as well as the European Union and other global countries) should admit that our investment in nuclear power was a mistake and begin to phase it out in an orderly way.
You can hear Mr. Kraemer’s full discussion on the nuclear power endgame in Germany here.
 Federal Statistical Office, Germany. “17% of Germany’s electricity consumption was met by renewable energy in 2010” Press release No. 144, April 11, 2011.