Interview with an ambassador: Why Germany is exiting from nuclear energy

The German Ambassador to Estonia, H.E. Annette Klein.
The German Ambassador to Estonia, H.E. Annette Klein. Source: Michael Richmann

Germany hast switched off the last three of its nuclear power plants at just the time when some of its neighbors would rather put their trust in nuclear power as an important foundation for a better CO2 footprint, and a more sustainable energy supply.

ERR News conducted an interview with the German Ambassador to Estonia, H.E. Anette Klein, about the rationale behind the German decision.

Ambassador Klein, I've been talking to quite a few people now. People from Estonia, from Finland and from Russia. And one topic really seems to bother them: As soon they find out that I am German, they come up with the question: 'Why the hell is Germany dropping nuclear power?' I now put that question to you: 'Why the hell is Germany doing that?'

We cannot control it, it is exceedingly expensive, and there are alternative energy sources out there that are more affordable and less hazardous. I became politically aware during my school years, in Bendorf, near Koblenz, and in the region of the Koblenz-Neuwied basin, due to the construction of a nuclear power plant at nearby Mülheim-Kärlich.

As a young person, I joined demonstrations against the nuclear plant, not primarily because of the trend towards a nuclear phase-out, but mainly because it was built on a tectonically weak site.

This area of Rhineland-Palatine experiences earthquakes up to 4.5 on the Richter scale, regularly. Additionally, the plant was located near the River Rhine, which was planned to be utilized for cooling purposes. People were concerned that the planners had not taken these earthquakes into account.

This issue persisted throughout my entire school time. Although the power plant was built in the end, it only went online briefly, for testing purposes, and was never officially operational, as a court later ruled that it was irresponsible to operate a nuclear power plant in this area. We opposed the power plant because we could not monitor it, it was too expensive, and we had the option to use other energy sources that were cheaper, and less hazardous.

Ok, but that outlines mistakes in the planning of one single power plant and doesn't really explain why Germany is completely exiting nuclear power as such.

Yes, however, that is precisely why I took an interest in and delved into the subject.

The current discourse in Germany regarding nuclear power, whether it be the continued operation of existing plants or the construction of new ones, has only arisen because energy security has become an increasingly significant concern over the past few months.

However, building a nuclear power plant typically takes at least seven years, and, historically, it has taken even longer to construct. It is crucial to consider whether alternative sources can provide the same amount of energy in a comparable timeframe, if not sooner.

Additionally, operating a nuclear power plant requires the state to establish specialized authorities. While I am not an expert on the matter, I recall that Germany has at least two agencies responsible for this issue: The Federal Office for Radiation Protection (Bundesamt für Strahlenschutz) and the Federal Office for the Safety of Nuclear Waste Management (Bundesamt für die Sicherheit der nuklearen Entsorgung).

Furthermore, there are likely numerous ministerial officers tasked with handling nuclear-related matters. These regulations are not unique to Germany, and they require substantial resources, both in terms of funding and personnel.

And once construction is completed, we must discuss safety. The situation in Zaporizhzhia demonstrates quite clearly how dangerous it is when the largest nuclear power plant in Europe is situated on the frontline between Russia and Ukraine. It is impossible to build a nuclear power plant that is completely indestructible, and even if that were possible, the cost would likely be astronomical. Such scenarios must be taken into consideration as: What if a plane were to crash into the plant? It is impossible to anticipate and control every possible scenario.

While operating a nuclear plant, you will need to regularly reprocess fuel rods and manage atomic waste, which requires the expertise of only a few individuals.

Ultimately, a suitable repository is required to handle all the nuclear waste. Germany has been searching for such a repository for decades, but without success. As far as I am aware, Finland is the only country with such a repository, and I have not heard of them offering to handle nuclear waste from other countries.

Germany has forbidden its export anyway.

Yes, but this could potentially change. While I don't have all the details, I suspect that this specific legislation was established because there was no country with a secure facility for storing nuclear waste, and there have been numerous instances of exported waste ending up in questionable locations.

Furthermore, just to use an hypothetical example, it would be counter-productive to avoid disposing of toxic waste in the North Sea for environmental reasons, if other countries that we could potentially export it to would simply dump it elsewhere.

But nuclear power plants can also present significant operational problems, as we can currently observe in France. Normally, Germany receives a substantial portion of its nuclear energy from France, but this is not currently the case, due to the serious issues that France is facing. Specifically, due to a drought, cooling systems are not functioning properly, resulting in many nuclear power plants not operating at full capacity.

This implies that although nuclear energy has a low carbon footprint during operation, it is relatively costly and poses multiple risks which are susceptible to both human error by operators and malicious actions by third parties. In short, we cannot exert complete control over it.

The German Ambassador to Estonia Annette Klein Source: Michael Richmann

After the operation comes the deconstruction phase. Germany has estimated that it may take up to six decades to fully dismantle each nuclear power plant. Due to these factors, Germany has decided that the effort required is not justified by the outcome, and has therefore opted for alternative sources of energy.

It is worth noting that the share of nuclear energy at the end was only 3 percent of Germany's energy mix, and recent discussions regarding this issue have been exaggerated.

But this 3 percent only counts for the last three nuclear power plants operating until April 2023.

Yes, and these three reactors had already given everything they could. They were actually due to be taken offline in 2019 for refurbishment, a process that would have taken several months and rendered them inoperative during that time.

Furthermore, this process would have required new fuel rods, which would have mostly come from Russia. However, Germany was unwilling to rely on Russia for their supply, plus finding a new supplier would have been too time-consuming. Reprocessing the rods would have required a similarly arduous effort.

But only if you look at these specific plants. Germany decided to exit nuclear energy more than a decade ago.

Yes, I believe that nuclear energy should not be pursued, due to the issues I have mentioned above. Instead, we have the opportunity to secure a sufficient energy supply through renewable sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, and hydropower.

However, our approval processes must be expedited. We give the people a lot of say in these matters, which I strongly support. Estonia is considering introducing nuclear energy. Under certain conditions, this may lead to people exercising their right to protest.

Therefore, taking into account these factors, I do not see any reason to proceed with nuclear energy. And this is a 100 percent economical approach. I do not need an ideology for that. It is worth noting that this is a decision made by Germany and that other countries such as France and Finland have chosen to rely on nuclear power.

You just said you do not need an ideology. But the public debate in Germany was very ideological on that issue. And the final decision to exit nuclear energy was an immediate reaction on the catastrophe in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011. Some people joke about the 'German Angst.'

Well, in my opinion, if you anticipate a threat, you should take action. Fukushima was more of a catalyst than a direct cause of the issue. Nuclear energy has not convinced me, and there were alternative paths we could have taken, even earlier.

However, our long approval processes delayed progress, and in my opinion, we took too much time. Now, though, we are making strides. While I have never personally lived within 50 meters of a windmill, if given the choice between living near a wind park or a nuclear power plant, I would undoubtedly choose the former.

Recently, I visited Saaremaa, with its old windmills, and I wondered if people in the past also complained about the impact on the landscape. Personally, I find the old windmills rather beautiful, but that is just my opinion. Fortunately, my personal opinion and conviction on this matter align with that of the German government.

But you are correct: The conflict was, in some aspects, not particularly rational. In the later 1970s, we spent our free time attending demonstrations, but the topic was not covered in school, either in physics or social sciences. This would have been beneficial.

The Finns seem to consider themselves able to handle these problems. Estonians are also mulling constructing a nuclear power plant. Do they have better engineers or are they just being naive?

First, Estonia has set up a commission which will consider the various scenarios. We have to see what their final opinion will be. Maybe they will also decide to rather count on renewable energies.

And second, as I said before, every country has to decide on its own what is the best way for its energy supply.

Estonians need to take into account, that nuclear energy takes huge efforts and huge costs. If you have several nuclear power plants you can use synergy effects for example in the administrative side. But if you set up several additional authorities to cope with just one nuclear facility the actual effort is even bigger.

However, I am sure they have the technical abilities to build and run that thing. It is only a question of whether it pays off. But that's not for me to decide.

First, Estonia has established a committee to evaluate various scenarios. It remains to be seen what their final recommendation will be, as they may opt for a greater reliance on renewable energies.

Second, as previously mentioned, each country must determine for themselves the optimal approach to their energy supply. Estonians must factor in the significant efforts and costs required for nuclear energy.

While multiple nuclear power plants can generate synergies, such as in administration, the creation of multiple regulatory bodies for a single facility would only increase the required effort.

Nonetheless, I am confident that Estonia possesses the technical capabilities to construct and operate such a facility.

Ultimately, the decision as to whether it is financially viable is not mine to make.

Some people fear that Germany is suddenly the weak point in the European energy grid.

I would have to rely on the German authorities on that matter, but as far as I know, they don't see it as a problem. However, it is important to manage the grid and distribute energy carefully, something which is also done at the European level. I don't believe that Europe is endangering its energy supply.

Editor's note: The above interview was conducted in German and translated into English.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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