Policies for clean energy

Nuclear phase-out

The nuclear phase-out is a central part of Germany's Energiewende. Germans view nuclear as unnecessarily risky, too expensive, and incompatible with renewables. In 2022, the last nuclear plant in Germany is to be shut down; at the beginning of 2011, 17 were in operation; in 2017, eight were still online. The country plans to fill the gap left behind by nuclear power with electricity from renewables, power from natural gas turbines, lower power consumption (efficiency and conservation), demand management, and – in the interim – the rest of its existing fleet of coal power plants.

The 2011 nuclear phase-out was not the first German nuclear phase-out. In 2000, the governing coalition of the Social Democrats and the Green Party under Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder reached an agreement with Germany’s nuclear sector to shut down the country’s nuclear plants after an average service life of 32 years. At the time, the country had 19 nuclear plants with commissions that had not expired.

The firms were allowed, however, to allocate kilowatt-hours from one plant to another. In this way, the firms themselves could decide to shut down one plant ahead of schedule but transfer that plant's remaining kilowatt-hours to another plant that, say, was located in a more critical area on the grid. Depending on how much nuclear power had been produced by then, Germany would have switched off its last nuclear plant around 2023.

Germany's Big Four power companies (EnBW, RWE, Eon, and Vattenfall) had no choice but to accept this compromise they had reached with Chancellor Schroeder's government, but they seemed to have pursued a strategy of waiting it out – and of switching from nuclear to coal and natural gas rather than to renewables. By the end of 2011, these firms collectively only made up seven percent of Germany's new investments in renewables. During that same period, the share of nuclear in German power supply fell from 30 percent in 1999 to 23 percent in 2010. As of mid-2017, Germany had closed nine of its 17 reactors still online in 2010 before the Fukushima nuclear accident.

Policy reversals

Then came the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, on March 11, 2011. In Berlin alone, an estimated 90,000 people took to the streets to protest nuclear power. The German government resolved to shut down eight of the country's 17 reactors immediately. The decision became final two months later, essentially meaning that Chancellor Merkel's coalition suspended the previous nuclear phase-out for only a few months before re-instituting a similar deadline. Now, Germany is back on course to be nuclear-free by 2022. For each of the remaining eight nuclear plants, a concrete date has been set for decommissioning.

In 2016, the phase-out debate turned its focus to financing decommissioning and the final waste repository, which will have to be maintained practically indefinitely, E.On's split into two companies was an attempt to move its nuclear liabilities into the new conventional power company; if it goes bankrupt, the new company focusing on renewable energy would not be liable. However, the German government and the nuclear companies have been working on a deal to ensure that liquidity is set aside in a special fund. Up to now, the money has not actually been set aside, but reinvested - and would therefore not be available in case of bankruptcy. In 2016, the German government proposed a fund worth 23.3. billion euros, roughly 6 billion more than the firms had previously set aside. That April, a Nuclear Commission headed by Jürgen Trittin of the Green Party, who had been involved in the original nuclear phase-out agreement of 2002, reached a compromise. First, the fund is increased to 23.6 billion euros to be paid by the firms concerned. Second, the money is to be paid into a public fund so that the money will be available even if a nuclear company goes bankrupt. In return, the German state is now solely responsible for nuclear waste disposal.