One of the most pressing issues in the world today is that of clean energy, which poses a series of challenging questions for policy makers around the world. How do we transition to clean energy from fossil fuels? What are the best forms of clean energy? And what even constitutes “clean energy” in the first place anyway? There are a diverse range of opinions on the correct answers to all of these questions, but when it comes to the energy debate, perhaps no issue is more complex and controversial than the question of nuclear power.
Recently on opposing sides of this debate in Europe are two of the continent’s most economically and politically powerful countries, France and Germany. Both have historically been heavily reliant on nuclear energy, but in recent years Germany in particular has sought to reduce its use of nuclear as a source of fuel. The problem is that at this moment Europe as a whole is seeking to lay out its overall plan to transition fully to clean energy production by 2050, and both France and Germany will need to be at the forefront of any plan that the continent devises, especially in the wake of the United Kingdom’s exit from the E.U. Thus, the disagreement between these two countries on the nuclear issue creates problems for the entire continent’s clean energy strategy, as the other countries of Europe will inevitably follow France and Germany’s lead.
For decades, nuclear power has been vital to serving France’s energy needs, providing 71.7% of the country’s total fuel supply. In the recent past, leadership in the country displayed some inclinations towards reducing the country’s reliance on nuclear, with the government of Francois Hollande pledging in 2015 to scale down the percentage of France’s energy supplied by nuclear to 50 percent by 2025.
However, ever since Emmanuel Macron succeeded Hollande as President in 2017, the country has begun to gravitate back towards nuclear once again. In October of 2019, the government directed EDF, the state owned nuclear power company, to draw up plans to build three new, next generation reactors. Under Macron, France has even begun initiatives to cooperate with Russia, itself a major nuclear nation, to find ways that both countries can further develop uses of nuclear as an energy source to both countries’ mutual benefit.
Germany, on the other hand, has taken a much more aggressive stance against nuclear. Firstly, it has moved aggressively to phase out its own nuclear energy production, cutting its percentage of energy needs met by nuclear in half since 2010. It’s stated aim is to eliminate the country’s use of nuclear energy entirely by the year 2022. Not only that, when it has come time for Europe to form its new clean energy strategy, Germany has insisted, contrary to the wishes of France, that nuclear should not be counted as a source of clean energy. This is where the country of Germany, or rather its decision makers, reveal their hypocrisy and bad judgement.
The intent of Germany phasing out nuclear power was to make their energy cleaner overall. However, one of the main advantages of nuclear is that it does not emit any carbon, with reducing carbon emissions being one of the ostensible main goals of the European clean energy plans of the future. However, Germany’s nuclear reduction has become a case study in how not to implement transitions to cleaner energy, as their poorly conceived and executed reduction in nuclear power caused an increase in emissions of “dirty energy” in the country.
The reason for this was that there was not enough “cleaner” energy readily available to replace the nuclear production that was being phased out, which gave Germany no choice but to increase supply of energy from fossil fuels including coal-fired power plants, generally believed to be the dirtiest source of energy that there is. On paper, Germany is now trying to phase out coal energy as an energy source, it steadfastly maintains an anti-nuclear policy.
Not only has the German government failed to learn from its own mistakes on energy, it is now attempting to impose its bad policy on the rest of Europe as well. Insisting that nuclear is not clean, Germany is refusing to supply countries such as France and Belgium with materials they need to continue or increase nuclear power production, and refuses to label nuclear as a source of “clean energy.”
In the clearest case of hypocrisy showing itself, Germany still counts natural gas as a vital part of its energy transition, wanting it to be labeled as “clean energy” in Europe’s future plans. While natural gas does produce fewer CO2 emissions than oil or, especially, coal, it nonetheless does produce significant carbon emissions, whereas nuclear (despite the complicating issue that disposing of its waste does present) produces none.
Why does Germany persist in this obviously misguided policy? The more paranoid-minded, including (unfortunately) some American policymakers of today, might blame Russian interference, as Russia and Germany have recently made steps towards the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to deliver new supplies of natural gas into Germany. However, we have already seen that Russia is happy to cooperate with France in advancing its pro-nuclear policy, and if Germany were pursuing a more nuclear-friendly approach they would likely find a partner in Moscow in the nuclear arena as well.
It is possible that the legacy of the 1980s still haunts Germany’s decision makers on this issue. Radioactive clouds from the USSR’s Chernobyl disaster blew over Germany during that decade, sparking up a large anti-nuclear movement. But even if that is the case, it is not a rational approach to energy policy. The negative consequences of what Germany has already done to move away from nuclear make it clear that attempting it to exclude it from the category of clean energy will only lead to more fossil fuel consumption. France’s leadership has been sensible enough to recognize this, and Germany should drop its misguided opposition that is only obstructed Europe’s move towards cleaner energy.