Abandoning nuclear power was a mistake. Germany must return to the future of energy

Renewables alone can't provide the clean energy we need to combat climate change

Published July 16, 2023 1:59PM (EDT)

Neckarwestheim Nuclear Power Plant (Getty Images/fhm)
Neckarwestheim Nuclear Power Plant (Getty Images/fhm)

A little over a decade ago I was living in Charlottenburg, a Berlin neighbourhood just a few kilometres to the west of the Brandenburg Gate, on the other side of the lush, tree-lined paths and bathing lawns of Tiergarten. One of things I admire so much about Germany is its particular brand of pragmatic long-termism, which sets it apart from its Anglo-Saxon peers. But when it comes to energy, Germany has uncharacteristically abandoned pragmatism and championed renewables under its Energiewende strategy. It's a failing energy policy that has been decades in the making.

Shortly after the reunification of Germany in the late 20th Century, British architect Norman Foster was commissioned to transform the neglected old Reichstag building. The structure he found had been cast adrift following the inferno of brutal war, and left largely abandoned during four decades of cold division. Whereas we rarely discover the secrets contained deep within most great offices of state, the Reichstag was opened up to reveal its soul. Foster uncovered a story of conflict, told in part through small details, including the Russian graffiti on crumbling walls marked by the scars of human misjudgement. 

In setting about designing the physical embodiment of a new nation, united and reborn in the early 1990s, Foster and his team prioritised four related considerations: the new Reichstag's significance as a democratic forum; an understanding of history; a commitment to accessibility; and a vigorous environmental agenda. By the end of the decade his vision for the Reichstag was realised and it became the seat of the Bundestag (German Parliament) which, in 1999, convened in its rejuvenated home for the first time. It marked a moment in history: a reinvigorated young nation ready to reintroduce itself to the world, stepping boldly and confidently into the 21st Century. The old building together with its new occupants – and the people they represented – were united. They were looking to the future, just as the architect had intended that they might.

With a climate emergency so real, so immediate and so pressing, it feels as though that simple vision for the future could be fading from view

Foster's design for the Reichstag was a model of sustainability and ahead of its time, using an on-site bio-fuel cogenerator to produce the building's electricity. This machine works by storing surplus heat in an underground aquifer, the hot water from which is pumped up to heat the building and to drive an absorption cooling plant to produce chilled water. The result was a dramatic reduction in CO2 emissions. Theoretically, the Reichstag has the ability to produce more energy than it consumes, allowing it to serve as a mini power station for the surrounding government quarter.

Nearly a quarter of a century on from the unveiling of the new Reichstag, most of us – from Germany's politicians to Norman Foster himself – want to see a more equitable world that operates sustainably, to ensure that future generations can inherit viable societies in a liveable planet. It may sound idealistic, but it's really a modest ambition. Yet with a climate emergency so real, so immediate and so pressing, it feels as though that simple vision for the future could be fading from view.

Those nuclear power plant closures were a purely political move and make no economic or climate sense

The fear-inducing warnings from those with good climate intentions don't seem to be working – they risk creating a sense of fatalism, especially if we keep being told that this is our last chance each time there is a Conference of the Parties summit on climate. Humanity must find a way to act with urgency to avert a climate catastrophe, and we can do so with a sense of optimism at the new possibilities and opportunities available to us if we seize this moment. We can look to the future.

But we aren't seizing the moment.

We need to change course on the issue underpinning so many others we face today, which is also the overriding driver for climate change: how we produce, distribute and consume energy. A famous German, Albert Einstein, is widely – perhaps falsely – credited as once saying, "the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." In the context of the current economic crisis accompanied by the climate emergency, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and striving for the same results.

When it comes to energy, there are two forms of insanity we are witnessing today. The first is sticking with CO2-emitting fossil fuels, which account for 82 percent of global energy, according to BP's Statistical Review of World Energy 2022. The second insanity is believing, as the prevailing forces within today's Reichstag do, that renewables alone are the best alternative.


Energiewende isn't working. The plan was to phase out nuclear energy, expand renewable sources and make its economy virtually carbon-neutral by the middle of the century. The only part of the plan that has had any clear "success" is regarding nuclear, which it recently discarded altogether, closing its final three nuclear plants in April this year.

Germany's emissions aren't reducing significantly, because the country remains dependent on fossil fuels for a more than half of its electricity

Those closures were a purely political move and make no economic or climate sense. No clear path to replacing them has been set out, other than to introduce a new set of gas plants which would only increase greenhouse gas emissions. The hope is that these would one day be converted to hydrogen, but it all amounts to a needlessly convoluted set of arrangements necessitated by abandoning nuclear power. Unsurprisingly, investors are not exactly champing at the bit to back costly transitional infrastructure and aspirations which are so clearly flawed.

Germany's emissions aren't reducing significantly, because the country remains dependent on fossil fuels for a more than half of its electricity, with coal – including dirty, heavily CO2-emitting lignite – the largest single source, providing almost one-third of all electricity. The problem is a refusal to acknowledge reality: renewables are variable and cannot continuously provide energy at all the times we need it.

Whatever its political aspirations, Germany's energy networks are no different to any other country in the most basic sense: energy supply must at all times be equal to energy demand. Germany's grid needs to meet the demands of consumers around the clock, including during peak times such as the coldest winter nights when solar is not producing.

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Germany is generating 43 percent of its electricity from renewables, but it is paying a heavy price for this. The cost is felt through the volatility that intermittent renewables introduce to the network. Renewables may appear cost-effective when viewed in isolation on sunny or windy days when they produce a lot of energy.

However, when the sun or wind disappears, there is no affordable battery technology system that can store unused surplus energy at the scale required to supply an entire grid, covering unproductive periods. Therefore, to plug the gaps at night, Germany – with its grid interconnected with the rest of continental Europe – either draws from neighbouring countries, or turns to its natural gas or coal-fired power plants to kick in. Firing those up adds considerable cost, in more ways than one, which ought to be added to any calculation of the true cost of renewables.

So, the inevitable shortfall from renewables needs to come from a reliable source. If that reliable source is not clean nuclear, it will be a dirty fossil fuel. Bafflingly, Germany is choosing the dirty option.

The Greens have unswervingly made scrapping nuclear energy a key demand in coalition negotiations, resulting in them holding sway on German energy policy

This is because Germany's political landscape is shaped by an electoral system of proportional representation. Federal elections consistently produce indecisive outcomes, which in turn require the establishment of cross-party coalitions to form a government. One of the main beneficiaries of this, down the years, has been Germany's Green Party, which grew out of the 1970s anti-nuclear movement. The Greens have unswervingly made scrapping nuclear energy a key demand in coalition negotiations, resulting in them holding sway on German energy policy.

The net effect is that anti-nuclear propaganda has persuaded Germany's politicians to oppose the safest, most reliable, concentrated, efficient and carbon-free energy source available to us. But already the plan is failing. In recent recognition that the Energiewende ambitions would not be met, Germany's Bundestag – today's occupants of the Reichstag – removed a target for 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035, instead requiring that electricity supply be 'nearly' climate neutral by 2035 and that 80 percent of electricity must come from renewables by 2030.

This rowing back of climate targets is the price for abandoning nuclear energy — for abandoning the carbon-free solution already staring us in the face, available and ready to be scaled-up now.

As with any parliamentary building, Norman Foster must have known that the competing ideas that would be contested underneath his iconic glass cupola redesign might not always lead to effective legislative instruments, delivering sensible policy outcomes. Perhaps nobody could have anticipated the extent to which Foster's fourth consideration in renovating the Reichstag – the vigorous environmental agenda – might one day go so badly awry that it risks echoing the past misjudgements that reverberate inside that building without secrets. As was the case before, the wider consequences for humanity are huge.

This rowing back of climate targets is the price for abandoning nuclear energy — for abandoning the carbon-free solution already staring us in the face

An almost unquestioning support for renewables has become the new orthodoxy in mainstream thinking. However, whether we look at safety, measured as deaths per unit (terawatt-hour) of electricity created, or look at emissions, measured as CO2 per gigawatt-hour of electricity over the cycle of a power plant, nuclear is as clean and safe an energy source as any alternative. The unit of one gigawatt-hour is equivalent to the annual electricity consumption of one hundred and fifty people in the European Union.

Nuclear's three tonnes per gigawatt-hour is cleaner than solar's five tonnes. In a head-to-head comparison, including greenhouse gas emissions from the full lifecycle of the power plant (construction, operation, maintenance, fuel, decommissioning), nuclear is as low carbon as wind and much lower than solar, hydro, geothermal and bio renewables. A 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change working group paper had nuclear on 13 tonnes per gigawatt-hour and solar on 53 tonnes per gigawatt-hour, measured on a life-cycle basis.

The five European countries with the lowest greenhouse gas emissions per unit of electricity generation are Norway, France, Sweden, Switzerland and Finland. They have all achieved this through nuclear, hydro or both. By contrast, the five countries which have invested most in solar and wind – Germany, Denmark, Portugal, Spain and Ireland – all have much higher emissions.

Sweden looked to the future when it embraced nuclear energy in the early 1970s

Sweden looked to the future when it embraced nuclear energy in the early 1970s and within twenty years, according to World Bank data for the period 1970 to 1990, saw CO2 per capita reduce by fifty percent whilst GDP per capita increased by fifty percent. Fifty years on from that policy decision, Sweden has clean, secure and affordable energy and is emitting less greenhouse gas than any comparator nation.

In fact, Sweden is the least polluting country in Europe and of any major industrialised nation, emitting carbon dioxide at under four tonnes per capita. By contrast, Germany is emitting more than double that, at just over eight tonnes per capita. Sweden's use of nuclear as its reliable linchpin has enabled it to increase the share of renewables within its energy mix. Germany can only look on with envy.

Across the Atlantic, the United States emits almost 15 tonnes per capita – in large part because it chose to head in the opposite direction to Sweden over the same time period. Whereas the US had previously been intent on vigorously pursuing nuclear energy, and on course to a low carbon clean energy future, it changed track with disastrous consequences. President Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" vision descended back down to fossil fuels.

The United States turned back from the future by curtailing nuclear expansion and that one policy decision, above all others in living memory, almost certainly precipitated the climate crisis we now face. Reversing it is humanity's best hope of securing the simple ambition of gifting our children a future worth inheriting. 

As we look ahead to that future, we must look to the past for guidance. The clues are always there for us, if we pay attention to them. Norman Foster's work is currently being showcased at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The 2,200 square-metre exhibition – which includes Foster's drawings and original models for more than one hundred projects – spans six decades of his achievements in reconceptualising the functions of architectural design and physical form, and runs until early August. The Retrospective provides an opportunity not only to celebrate his work, but to learn from past progress to inform how we look forward – something Foster's life has been dedicated to doing. Indeed, 'future' is one of seven themes explored in the Pompidou exhibition. 

Humanity's future hangs in the balance, and much depends on the energy technologies we decide to prioritise in facing a climate emergency against the backdrop of increasing global demand for energy. Beyond European borders, the world requires an abundance of clean energy as billions of people rightly demand a rise in their living standards. This requires supposedly "climate conscious" Europeans to revisit our preferences for particular energy technologies. Indeed, it requires us to focus on achieving a carbon free future, rather than promoting one energy source at the expense of others.

The German Government has committed to phasing out fossil fuels, and pledged for Germany to become greenhouse gas-neutral across all sectors, by 2045. However, there is no combination of renewable energy technologies currently known to mankind that is capable of delivering this. So, in order to meet the climate change challenge, Germany should focus on maximising low-carbon electricity supply rather than slavishly aiming to increase the share of renewables. Wind and solar energy cannot fully cover demand, so it's difficult to see how Germany will avoid returning to nuclear eventually if it wants to decarbonise. Sooner or later, Germany and its glorious Reichstag will, once again, have to go back to the future. The best time to do that is now. 

By Nick O’Hara

Nick O’Hara is a dual Irish-British communications strategist, avid walker and aspiring new writer. He is co-founder of thought leadership consultancy Renovata, and producer of the new Gridlocked podcast, which seeks to explore why the 21st Century is broken and how to fix it.


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Commentary Energy Germany Nuclear Power Renewable Energy