Nuclear Power? Yes Please! Germany Sees Tidal Shift in Sentiment Toward Atomic Energy
Winter is coming and Klaus Zilian is worried. He lives with his wife and two children in Neustadt, in the northwestern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, in the single-family home the couple bought 14 years ago – 160 square meters (1,500 square feet), seven rooms and insulating plaster the color of champagne. The electricity comes from the municipal utility company, the house is heated with gas and the Baltic Sea is only a five-minute walk away. It's typical middle-class prosperity.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 32/2022 (August 6th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.
The family will be able to handle the fact that the energy prices are going up due to the Russian reduction of the flows of natural gas into Germany, Zilian says. But what if the house suddenly gets cold because there's just not enough gas? "I can already see us cuddling under blankets," says Zilian, who heads a financial consultancy.
He has backed away from a formerly held conviction. "I was always in favor of the plan to phase out nuclear power," the 54-year-old says of Germany's plan to take all of its atomic energy plants offline by the end of this year. He says the situation changed because of the crisis with Russia. He says he supports keeping nuclear power plants online to prevent having to use natural gas to generate electricity. "We should use the existing nuclear power plants for as long as the crisis lasts," he says.
It's a typical scene from a country that is afraid, even amid the summer heat, of the coming winter and the threat of gas shortages. It's a country eyeing its nuclear power plants, the few that are still operating and those that were just recently switched off, from a new perspective: Couldn't they help now, amid the potentially imminent emergency? In any case, many people no longer seem to see the cooling towers and their clouds of steam as a symbol of evil, but rather one of hope.
The Zillian family in Neustadt in the state of Schleswig-HolsteinFoto: Gesche Jäger / DER SPIEGEL
A poll commissioned by DER SPIEGEL has revealed some rather shocking numbers. According to the survey carried out by the online polling firm Civey, only 22 percent of those surveyed are in favor of shutting down the three nuclear plants that are still in operation in Germany – Isar 2, Neckarwestheim 2 and Emsland – as planned at the end of the year.
Forty-One Percent Want To Build New Plants
Seventy-eight percent of those surveyed are in favor of continuing to operate the plants until the summer of 2023, a variant that is being discussed in the political sphere as a "stretch operation" – in other words, continuing to keep them online for a few months, but without the acquisition of new fuel rods. Even among Green Party supporters, a narrow majority favors this approach.
Is this the crisis talking? Is it a pragmatic view centered on the idea that it's just a few months and they won't change anything about the planned phaseout of nuclear power? Probably not. The answers suggest that the attitude of Germans toward nuclear power has changed significantly. Sixty-seven percent are in favor of continuing to operate the nuclear plants for the next five years, with only 27 percent opposed to it. The only group without a clear majority in favor of running the plants for the next five years are the supporters of the Green Party. Backers of the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), as well as those supporting the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) are over 80 percent in favor of having the nuclear plants running for that long.
On the question of whether Germany should build new nuclear power plants because of the energy crisis, 41 percent of respondents answered "yes," meaning they favor an approach that isn't even up for debate in Germany.
The results are astounding all around, especially compared with past surveys. Thirty-three years ago, a polling institute asked a similar question on behalf of DER SPIEGEL. At the time, only a miniscule 3 percent of respondents thought Germany should build new plants.
Questioning Old Certainties
Officially, German is supposed to be transitioning to green energies, but these polling figures suggest that people may be interested in returning to the old energy status quo.
But how is that even possible? It had already become clear in recent years that support for the nuclear phaseout was already slowly crumbling. The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine has now accelerated this shift, calling into question many old certainties, or overturning them completely. Formerly staunch pacifists now support weapons deliveries. A Green Party economics minister is going on a gas-shopping spree to Qatar. The energy security that people took for granted for decades in Germany has been shaken ever since Russia cut gas deliveries and costs rose.
The result being that an old German dogma now seems to be crumbling: the rejection of nuclear energy. Concerns are either being put on the backburner or are evaporating. Radiation from nuclear waste? Safety risks? Danger of large-scale disasters? Who cares. Those are things you worry about when you have working heat. Electricity first, then ethics.
However, some people believe nuclear power is both ecologically and morally sound – Ulrike von Waitz, for example. The 53-year-old's thinking on the issue began shifting a few years ago, after she witnessed a tree lose its leaves. The entrepreneur lives with her family in Kahl am Main, a village in Bavaria. In 2018, the hottest year since the beginning of weather records in Germany, Waitz saw trees losing their foliage in the middle of the summer drought. "That's the first time I saw that the climate catastrophe is a real threat," she says.
Pro-nuclear power activist Ulrike von Waitz at the former research reactor in Kahl, Germany: "A technology we need."Foto: Bert Bostelmann / DER SPIEGEL
Von Waitz, a long-time member of the CSU, describes herself as a doer: optimistic, socially engaged, open to technology. When she sees a grievance or an injustice, she acts. She campaigned on behalf of Human Rights Watch, and she and her husband recently set up a shelter for 20 Ukrainian children.
When von Waitz noticed the signs of climate change in her environment, she became a pro-nuclear activist. She had done a lot of reading and was convinced by the arguments of those who say that nuclear power can protect the climate. "Nuclear energy, for all its danger, is a technology we need," she says on the phone.
She then joined a group called Mothers for Nuclear. Von Waitz has five children, and together with seven other women, all concerned about their children's future, she organizes pro-nuclear demonstrations. Not many people come, but they feel like they've got some momentum. And that they're doing the right thing. The mothers want to draw attention to how much CO2 they believe the technology could save.
How should politicians respond to the resurrection of an issue that had long been consigned to the dustbin of history?
They become ideologically flexible. Driven by the fear of angry voters unsure about their energy supply, more and more decision-makers are showing themselves to be willing to make concessions. Even Chancellor Olaf Scholz said a few days ago that an extension of the lifespan of nuclear plants could "make sense" when he visited a Gazprom turbine intended for the Nord Stream I gas pipeline from Russia for a bizarre photo op and press event. Even Winfried Kretschmann, Germany's only Green state governor, a man who once wore a "no thanks" to nuclear power button on his lapel at demonstrations, can also imagine a "possible time-limited extension." The heads of the CDU and the CSU, Friedrich Merz and Markus Söder, were just photographed together in a joint visit to the Isar 2 power plant, which they would like to see continue operating until 2024.
In political circles in Berlin, the nuclear debate is causing intrigue and increasing nervousness. Just a few weeks ago, Green Economics Minister Robert Habeck had a fairly relaxed approach to the nuclear question. But the mood in society has shifted, and this hasn't escaped the Greens.
The speed of the change is making some Greens dizzy – and they are already worried that their own people might change their minds. A majority in favor of a limited extension of the operating span of nuclear power plants, both among the party's base and the public more broadly, would have to be taken seriously.
For weeks, the FDP, in particular, has been pushing for extending the plants' operations. FDP leader and Finance Minister Christian Lindner and FDP Secretary General Bijan Djir-Sarai have been poking at their Green Party government coalition partner. Most recently, Lindner proposed allowing the three remaining German nuclear power plants to keep operating until 2024 "if necessary." For Lindner, the strategist, it's not only a question of providing a steady energy supply for Germans, but also about keeping his own party's ratings stable in the polls.
FDP politician Bijan Djir-Sarai: "Stretching the operations doesn't solve any problem, that's just window dressing."Foto: Kay Nietfeld / dpa
"The FDP must be the voice of reason in the coalition," says Djir-Sarai, who seems to consider nuclear power and reason as congruent. After all, Lindner and his allies are not calling for a broad renaissance of nuclear power or an about-face on the exit from nuclear power in the long term – a position which they know would spell the end of their governing coalition with the Social Democrats and the Greens.
Stretching operations could be the compromise approach – but how long can things be stretched before it gets painful? A few months, so the Greens can get away with it? Or two years, as Christian Lindner is demanding?
Leading Greens unanimously reject an extension that would require the acquisition of new fuel rods, saying that this would be a red line they are unwilling to cross. But, says Djir-Sarai, "Stretching the operations doesn't solve any problem, that's just window dressing."
When Florian Ruckeisen drives to Grevenbroich from the south, he can see the steam billowing from the cooling towers of the Neurath lignite-fired power plant. If he is coming from the west, he drives past the open pit mine in Garzweiler. Grevenbroich, his home in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, used to proudly call itself the "city of energy." Ruckeisen basically lives in the middle of Germany's fossil fuel landscape. But, he says, "we have to exit coal-fired power generation as quickly as possible."
Ruckeisen is an engineer who sees himself as being on the political left and who is worried about climate change. At age 41, he is neither a member of the anti-nuclear 1968 generation nor of the young generation of climate activists. He was five years old at the time of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. Today, he could be seen as a representative of the large, open-minded middle group that was "somehow against" nuclear energy for a long time, but without any strong passion or idea of why they adopted that position, and which is now easily changing its mind.
The engineer says that his opinion is based on a general mood in the country. When former Chancellor Angela Merkel decided to phase out nuclear power in 2011, he thought it was a good decision. Then, three years ago, Ruckeisen started looking into the pros and cons of nuclear energy. "I wanted arguments for my position against it," he says, "but the more I looked into it, the fewer concerns I had."
A Movement Has Gone Quiet
Since the Fukushima disaster in Japan and the 2011 decision to phase out nuclear power, the anti-nuclear movement, as much a part of German identity as Oktoberfest, has gone quiet.
The goal had been attained. Gone were the days when hundreds of police officers had to drag protesters from the train tracks so that the "Castor transports" of nuclear waste could pass. And few still take notice of the tractor protests in Gorleben, the site of a nuclear waste storage site, which actually do still take place. Today, it's the climate activists who are gluing themselves to the streets and embracing civil disobedience, blocking highways and lignite excavators and other symbols of the fossil fuel age. It's their actions that are getting media attention.
But the fight against nuclear power isn't that central to Fridays for Future, Last Generation, Extinction Rebellion and the other climate protection movements. "Anti-nuclear activists are very emotionally moved when it comes to the phaseout of nuclear energy. That's not the case for me and many others in the climate movement," says Helena Marschall, an activist with Fridays for Future Germany. She says it's a "done deal." Or so people thought.
Many are irritated by the renewed debate about nuclear power, claiming that it's all absurd, a shifting of the discourse away from the real problems. "A lot of time is being wasted here that we don't have in the climate crisis," says Marschall. These days, Fridays for Future is focused on resisting the new fossil fuel infrastructure being created in the form of liquified natural gas (LNG) terminals off the German coasts, and the new gas fields being developed in countries like Senegal to keep Germans warm. They are worried about Germany potentially missing its climate targets in the coming years and tend to view the debate about nuclear power from the sidelines.
How do the old enemies of nuclear power and the associated waste see their fellow Germans' new fondness for nuclear power? Do they no longer understand the world? Do they even exist at all anymore?
The Hahlbohm family in the Wendland region: three generations of resistance to nuclear power.
Absolutely. Take Marika Hahlbohm, 78, from Lemgow in the northwestern German state of Lower Saxony, for example, who lives in a house with three generations of opponents of nuclear power. The Hahlbohm family has 500 chickens, two goats and two dachshunds. This week, their potato and grain fields need to be harvested.
Their farm is located in the Wendland region, near the former border with East Germany, which has been the focus of the anti-nuclear movement for decades. The reason is Gorleben, a salt dome that was intended as a repository for nuclear waste, and where 113 containers are currently stored. The protests against the Castor transports have left their mark on the family.
"We've been to Gorleben, Hannover and Berlin with our tractor," says Marika Hahlbohm, "the children had to come along, of course." Hahlbohm says she experienced her first protests over 40 years ago. Her son-in-law Jörg Buttnop has been taking part since the 1980s. "They beat me up and put me in jail," he says.
The grandmother says, "I'm absolutely against questioning the phaseout." Her daughter Marlitt and granddaughter Carlotta see it the same way. On the other hand, she says, she can understand "that people in the city are afraid they will have to freeze in the winter." The family has wood gasification heating and a solar panel on the roof.
Then a discussion unfolds around the multigenerational family table that may be symptomatic of a country in a time of shifting worldviews. "I'm not so sure about that," says the son-in-law, who is well informed. "If the fuel rods of the Isar 2 power plant in Bavaria can actually produce electricity at full load for another 150 days, then we should consider whether that makes sense." He says he could imagine letting the reactors continue running another year or two. "You're not serious!" says his wife, Marlitt. "Yes, I am. I'm even asking myself if that for which we fought for the last 30 years was all correct."
Then the second granddaughter, Linda, 34, joins in and pleads for the continued operation of the power plants, but only for a limited period. "And after that come another two years, and then it will continue like that forever," counters the grandmother, bitterly.
Will Berlin Change Nuclear Phaseout Law?
But can it really go on forever? Are extended operating spans or the recommissioning of nuclear reactors and the other scenarios even technically feasible? Can the phaseout even still be stopped at this point?
For one, continued operations would be illegal. Anyone who operates a nuclear power plant after Jan. 1, 2023, will be open to prosecution, because that's when the "operational authorization" for the last three German nuclear power plants will expire. Neckarwestheim, Emsland and Isar 2 will have to be taken off the grid, regardless of the fact that each of them could produce up to 11 billion kilowatt hours of electricity per year in a pinch.
Uwe Stoll is the CEO of the German Corporation for Reactor Safety (GRS), a man with 35 years of experience in the nuclear sector. He doesn't believe that the end of nuclear power in Germany is upon us. He predicts that as of Jan. 1, the number of operating nuclear plants in the country will be "greater than zero."
Stoll believes that the German government will change the nuclear law to allow the continued availability of nuclear power. He says it would technically not be problematic to continue operating the three facilities over a long period. The best candidate for a comeback, he says, would be the Isar 2 plant near Landshut, in Bavaria, in part because of the state's precarious energy situation, as the state doesn't have any wind power or power lines from the north. Isar 2 is actually intended to be run at full power until the last day, after which the fuel rods will be exhausted, according to its operator, PreussenElektra.
CDU leader Friedrich Merz (left) and CSU leader Markus Söder on a visit to the Isar 2 nuclear power plantFoto: Bayerische Staatskanzlei / dpa
But those fuel rods won't be gone – a nuclear plant can produce electricity even with old elements. Although the output then decreases by up to 0.5 percent a day, it can remain productive for "80, 90, maybe 100 days," according to Stoll.
If Berlin does decide to keep the nuclear power plants online, a second question will arise that is likely to hit the Greens especially hard: From the technical perspective, it would be hard to argue against putting the three power plants shut down in 2021 back online.
Although some power lines have been cut at Brokdorf, Grohnde and Gundremmingen C, the actual dismantling process hasn't properly begun. The spent fuel elements need to stay in the plants' decay pools for at least five years to lose enough radioactivity and heat radiation. Even a decommissioned power plant needs to remain largely intact during this period to ensure key functions, like cooling. Stoll believes that each of these old nuclear power plants could be refurbished within six months.
A Symbol of Solidarity
The pressure to keep or reopen German nuclear plants isn't just coming from within Germany, but also increasingly from Europe, the European Union partners with whom Germany will have to jointly overcome the energy and Ukraine crises.
Many EU member states have not forgotten that the German government pushed through the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to the northern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in the face of fierce opposition. It's not only the Eastern Europeans who are irritated that Berlin is now calling for solidarity from all EU member states even as it refuses to compromise on nuclear energy.
Unlike in previous crises, Germany is now dependent on the support of its partners. Germany consumes more gas than any other EU country, and much of it comes from Russia. In Brussels last week, Slovakian Economics Minister Richard Sulík said that if Germany wants to save gas, it should "first keep three of its nuclear power plants running."
The extension of the operations is becoming a symbol of German solidarity. For this reason alone, the German government can ill afford to shut them all down at the end of the year.
In the small town of Ahaus in North Rhine-Westphalia, near the Dutch border, 71-year-old Felix Ruwe is sitting in his backyard. Ruwe is a pensioner and deputy chairman of the No Nuclear Waste in Ahaus citizens' initiative, which was founded 45 years ago and reached its heyday around 1998 and 2005, when the Castor transports with spent fuel rods arrived in Ahaus.
Ruwe has a degree in electrical engineering and talks like someone who does, with mention of ball fuel elements, moderator rods and the differences between MTR2 and MTR3 castors. He knows what is stored in Ahaus (enriched uranium), the number of castor containers there (329) and how long the interim storage facility's license will last (until 2036). Resistance against nuclear waste, which can pose a burden to future generations for thousands of years, is his life's work.
When asked who is still involved in the citizens' initiative these days, Ruwe says, "We have to admit that we're all old farts now." He says there's no young new blood coming to continue the fight. "The resistance," says his wife, Christel, "will die with us."