Phasing out nuclear energy
The use of nuclear energy to generate electricity has sparked heated debate in Germany for decades. Many Germans find it difficult to assess the technological risk. They are concerned about the potential impact of a reactor accident on people, nature and the environment. These fears were confirmed by the accident in the Ukrainian city of Chernobyl in 1986 that also contaminated parts of Germany. In 2000, the German Government decided to completely phase out the use of nuclear energy to generate electricity and to switch to an energy supply based on renewable sources. The agreement reached with the nuclear plant operators set a time limit for the use of existing plants and banned the construction of new plants.
This plan was amended in 2010. Existing plants were to be used for a longer period of time in order to bridge the gap until nuclear power could be completely replaced by renewable energies. Following the reactor accident in Fukushima, Japan, in March 2011, the German Government overturned this decision.
Because of the major risks involved in their operation, nuclear power plants have high insurance and safety costs. It therefore makes economic sense to shift away from nuclear power.
The German Bundestag voted by a large majority to end the use of nuclear energy to generate electricity as soon as possible. Several power plants had to stop producing power as soon as this law entered into force. Use of the remaining plants will be phased out by the end of 2022. Seven nuclear power plants currently still supply electricity in Germany, accounting for around one eighth of the electricity generated in the country.
The measures needed to dispose of radioactive waste also highlight the challenges involved in the use of nuclear energy. In order to protect people and the environment, this waste must be securely stored away from the biosphere for very long periods of time. Experts believe that the best way to do this is to store nuclear waste in deep geological formations.
Germany does not want to export its radioactive waste. However, the search for a suitable location for a final disposal site is proving to be difficult, with local people generally opposed to potential or explored sites so far.
This is why Germany is now taking a new approach. It is including all parts of society in a transparent and scientifically based search process. The aim is to find a location for a final disposal site for particularly high-level radioactive waste by 2031. This site should provide the best possible level of safety for a period of one million years. Final disposal therefore also drives up the cost of nuclear energy. Germany already has an approved final disposal site for low and medium-level radioactive waste, the Konrad repository, which is scheduled to open in 2022.