Nuclear Energy on Hold: An Atomausstieg FAQ


(Image via Michaela)

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What is “Atomausstieg”?

The German term Atomausstieg [1] refers to the end of the production and use of nuclear energy in Germany. It’s a law that got passed in 2011 [2], right after the devastating catastrophe in Fukushima, Japan. This new law restricts the time the 17 Nuclear power plants in Germany have until they need to be shut down. It also means the end of nuclear energy for Germany for good. The Government decided that by 2022 Germany should be nuclear power free and instead replace the nuclear energy with energy supplied by renewable resources.

Why does the German government pursue Atomaustieg?

After the devastating catastrophe in Fukushima, the German government changed its laws about Nuclear energy and proclaimed that it wants to be a nuclear power free country by 2022 [3]. In light of public pressure, the 8 oldest Nuclear power plants in Germany got shut down immediately in 2011 [4]. Instead of using nuclear energy, the German government wants to use renewable resources like wind power, solar energy, biomass and hydro energy; and reallocated funding into renewable energy. Historically there has been a very strong anti-nuclear movement in Germany ever since the first reactor got built in 1970. Once the news of Fukushima reached Germany, protest against Nuclear power flamed up across the country [5]. The public pressure on the Government increased dramatically. In 2010 the government had extended the time limit on all nuclear power plants by 12 years until they had to be shut down [6]. This push back on the initial shut down time was highly criticised. After Fukushima, the lobbying and public pressure reached its height, the government gave in and the oldest 8 reactors got shut down right away.

Can Germany keep up with its energy demands without nuclear energy?

Before Fukushima, the Government and the energy companies were concerned that shutting down the old power plants would lead to power shortages and blackouts across Germany [7]. They were also concerned that the renewable energy technology wasn’t good enough yet to take over such a great sector of the German energy supply. Nuclear energy makes up 39% of Germany’s energy consumption [8]. Despite all concerns, after the 8 old nuclear reactors got shot down in 2011 there was no energy shortage. There was also not more coal used to keep up with energy demands. The energy companies were concerned that a reduction in nuclear energy would increase the use in ‘dirty brown coal’ to make energy. Brown coal is the energy source with the highest CO2 emissions, and therefore the most harmful to the environment [9]. In the winter of 2012, during a cold period, only 4 of the active 9 nuclear reactors were connected to the supply net and up and running, as the others were shut down temporarily for constructions and inspections. Even under intense weather conditions the 4 nuclear reactors supplied enough energy to cover the electricity demand in Germany. There was even left over capacity that got exported to other European countries [10].

Why is Germany against Nuclear Energy?

There are many risks involved with nuclear energy. The biggest problem with nuclear energy is its radioactivity and the effects it has on the planet. The potential of a nuclear catastrophe such as Chernobyl or Fukushima is the biggest concern in Germany [11]. However there are other issues, like where to store the highly radioactive and toxic nuclear waste. So far the by-products have been stored on a giant storage site in Germany, or were transported to France where the uranium got enhanced for re-usage [12]. Another problem is what to do with the power plants once they are shut down for good. They will be radioactively contaminated for centuries, and need looking after and maintenance even though they are not in use anymore.

What is the global significance of the German Atomausstieg?

Germany will be the first nuclear country in the world to successfully transform its energy sector away from nuclear power and towards more renewable energy, if Atomausstieg works out. The global impact as a role model would be huge. If Germany succeeds in being a nuclear free, highly industrialized countries might follow suit. Investment and research have already been geared away from nuclear technology towards renewable energy. Replacing nuclear energy with renewable energy would also decrease CO2 emissions.

What is the local problem with Atomausstieg?

The German government has changed the laws regarding the final storage of nuclear waste [13]. So far the nuclear waste has been stored at temporary warehouses in Germany. With a change in the law, the government allows companies to export their waste and be stored in other countries. Yet, nobody knows how to store radioactive waste without harming the environment or the people living close to it. Germany alone produces 250 tonnes of highly radioactive waste each year [14]. A lot of public attention has focused on the problem surrounding nuclear storage. The government suggested to use an old salt mine in Gorleben as a site for final storage [15]. The people of Gorleben and many activists have protested against the usage of Gorleben as a final storage.

Why can’t they use the salt mine in Gorleben as a final storage for nuclear waste?

The government chose a salt mine in Gorleben, situated between Hamburg and Berlin, as a final storage site for nuclear waste. The reasons for choosing the Gorleben salt mine where highly economically motivated. Most of the German nuclear waste is stored in an above ground temporary storage hall in Gorleben and would not need to be transported elsewhere [16]. The government also has invested a lot of money into the salt mine in Gorleben to make it fit for final storage. Activist, however, argue that Gorleben is not eligible as a final storage site as it is located above a gas chamber [17]. There is a possibility that water can enter the salt mine and weaken the coherence of the rock, which could cause the relatively weak salt mine to collapse under the weight of the nuclear waste onto the gas chamber, contaminating the air around it [18]. Furthermore, as water can get into the salt mine, it could, itself, get contaminated with radioactivity and sink further down into the ground water and thereby contaminate water supplies in general [19].

What are the policy inadequacies with Gorleben as a final storage?

The government never asked the public when it decided that Gorleben was to be a final storage place. It should have asked the local community for consent on the Gorleben project, or let the public get involved in the process of finding a storage site. NGO’s like BUND argue that the government shouldn’t have chosen Gorleben as final storage considering the little scientific research and knowledge that we have about final storage and the effects the radioactive material has on the planet [20]. There are also no scientific measurements or guidelines to establish if a salt mine (or other mines_ are fit to store radioactive material, especially not for the next million years. It is incredible how much waste has been accumulated already, 17.000 tonnes [21], which could cause so much harm to the local population and there is still more to come. Therefore, Germany has to stop producing nuclear waste for good. The nuclear waste poses a threat to human health and living standards, making it unconstitutional.

What is the problem with the new law enabling German nuclear waste to be exported?

Introducing the new law, German nuclear companies are legally allowed to ship their nuclear waste to different countries to be stored there. Not only is it not acceptable to auction off nuclear waste to other countries to deal with; but once the radioactive waste has left the borders, the German authorities can’t watch over them anymore. The countries that would store the waste might not have as strict rules such as the Germans. The nuclear waste could contaminate the area in which it would be stored. It is quite possible for the receiving country to not have experts to deal with it. There are many problems that arise from giving away nuclear waste. Germany is and should continue to be responsible for its own waste and should find a site in Germany, where the radioactive waste can be stored.

What is Germany going to do with the Nuclear Reactors once they have to be shut down in 2020?

Apart from the storage problem there are also no existing laws that dictate what to do with the nuclear reactors once they have been shut down for good. The nuclear reactors, themselves, will be contaminated for decades and will need to be controlled and maintained for a while after shut down. The estimated cost for the dismantling of the testing reactor FRG 1 of the Helmholtz Research Centre, for example, is forecasted to be 150 million euros and will take up to 15 years to be done [22]. Hence, the cost arising from shut down and dismantling will be immense. It is not clear yet, if the cost of Atomausstieg will fall back solely on the energy companies or if the government will support them.

What can be done?

First, the government needs to ban the law on exporting nuclear waste. The German government should not allow the export of nuclear waste as a source of revenue for other countries. German waste should stay in Germany.

Second, a criteria needs to be established on how to measure the suitability for final storage sites. Considering that there is no formal guideline which the government can follow in its search for final storage sites, there is a strong need to come up with a list of criteria on what a final storage site would need to have in order for it to be suitable. Once a fixed set of scientifically proven criteria is established, the government can restart its investigations for final storage sites. The government also needs to involve local communities and the public in choosing a final storage site. Something as important as final storage should not be kept from the public. If the government wants the current protesting and demonstrations against nuclear energy to stop, it has to actively involve the public, activists and NGO’s in its decision process.

Third, the Gorleben project needs to be stopped. The government cannot allow the salt mine in Gorleben to be a place for final storage of nuclear waste. The possible risks involved in using Gorleben as a final storage site, discussed earlier, are too high to be overlooked. Until Germany is completely nuclear free and all reactors are shut down for good, final storage should generally not start. Depending on how much more nuclear waste will be produced in the coming years a new or bigger final storage site may be needed. It doesn’t make sense to look for a final storage site now, considering how much more waste is to come in the future. It is also unadvisable to look for final storage sites now, considering how little knowledge we have on what a final storage site would need to keep the radioactive waste cooled and secured for the next million years.

Fourth, the government needs to come up with a well-structured and defined plan on how to dismantle the nuclear power plants. After all the nuclear power plants are shut down in 2022, the companies will start dismantling them. However no one knows where to store the radioactive parts of the power plant. The government has to make sure that the companies don’t sell the parts of the power plants to other countries. Nuclear power should be reduced worldwide. If Germany is to become a model for other countries it should set an example and not sell their old reactors.

Finally, the government also needs to further increase its funding for scientific research efforts in determining the effects of radioactive waste, which does not only contaminate its surroundings with radioactivity but also releases a lot of heat, and therefore needs to be cooled. Knowing what effects the nuclear waste has on its surroundings would help coming up with a solution for the final storage problem.

How can your changes be realized?

The first step has already begun. Germany is going to be nuclear free by 2022. Yet there is a lot of work that has to be done before then. There are a large groups of anti-nuclear activists in Germany already. The public awareness is also relatively high. However, considering the current changes in policy and the consequences that follow them, there is more need than ever to increase awareness in Germany. Not only the government, but other institutions need to increase their awareness campaigns.

One of the biggest national German NGO’s is BUND. It has been actively campaigning against nuclear energy for a long time. It has raised awareness against the Gorleben project and issued a public declaration against the use of Gorleben as a final storage site [23]. NGO’s such as BUND and other activist groups like the BBU should be integrated in policy decisions.

The German political party Die Grünen, which holds 17% of the popular vote right now [24], was founded in the 1970’s as an anti-nuclear power party. It has risen in significance since, and is a core element of German politics nowadays. Die Grünen plays a key role in public advocacy and exert a lot of political pressure on the other parties in parliament. Considering that their main platform is Atomausstieg, the government is constantly being challenged from within. Die Grünen and NGO’s should work hand in hand to increase public awareness. They should also form a team of anti-nuclear scientists to further investigate the effects of radioactive waste.

The pressure on the government to stop the Gorleben project needs to be intensified by increasing local awareness, protests and national attention. Die Grünen have to increase pressure within the Bundestag. If the scientific community, Die Grünen and NGO’s start working together, a solution for the final storage problem can be found. It is important that public awareness continues to grow in Germany and that the pressure on the government stays high.

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“Anti-Nuclear protests in Germany and France.” BBC. (March 20, 2013)

“Atomkraft” BUND. (March 20, 2013)

“Atommüll zurück in die USA.” Bergedorfer Zeitung. (March 20, 2013)

“BUND- Forderungen Zur Suche Eines Atommüll-Lager in Deutschland.” Bund (2012). (March 20, 2013)

“Bundesregierung beschließt Ausstieg aus der Kernkraft bis 2022“ Die Bundesregierung. (March 20, 2013)

“Coal, Why is it dirty?” Green America. (March 20, 2013)

“Deutschland Trend” (March 20, 2013)

“Energiewende.” Spiegel Online. (March 20, 2013)

“Freifahrtschein für Atommüll” Der Tagesspiegel. (March 20, 2013)

“Kernkraftwerke in Deutschland.” (March 20, 2013)

“Most Germans don’t want nuclear power.” Spiegel Online. (March 20, 2013)

“Nein Danke: kein Atommüll ins Ausland!” BUND. (March 20, 2013)

“Streit um Gorleben” Spiegel Online. (March 20, 2013)

“Trotz Eiseskälte exportiert Deutschland Strom“ Focus Online. (March 20, 2013)

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1. BUND. “Atomkraft” accessed 20.03.2013

2. Spiegel Online. “Energiewende” accessed 20.03.2013

3. Die Bundesregierung. “Bundesregierung beschließt Ausstieg aus der Kernkraft bis 2022“ accessed 20.03.2013

4. Spiegel Online. “Energiewende” accessed 20.03.2013

5. BBC. “Anti-Nuclear protests in Germany and France” accessed 20.03.2013

6. Spiegel Online. “Most Germans don’t want nuclear power” accessed 20.03.2013

7. Die Bundesregierung. “Bundesregierung beschließt Ausstieg aus der Kernkraft bis 2022“ accessed 20.03.2013

8. “Kernkraftwerke in Deutschland” accessed 20.03.2013

9. Green America, “Coal, Why is it dirty?” accessed 20.03.2013

10. Focus Online. “Trotz Eiseskälte exportiert Deutschland Strom“ accessed 20.03.2013

11. Spiegel Online. “Most Germans don’t want nuclear power” accessed 20.03.2013

12. BUND. “Nin Danke: kein Atommüll ins Ausland!” accessed 20.03.2013

13. Der Tagesspiegel “Freifahrtschein für Atommüll” accessed 20.03.2013

14. BUND. “Nein Danke: kein Atommüll ins Ausland!” accessed 20.03.2013

15. Spiegl Online “Streit um Gorleben” accessed 20.03.2013

16. “BUND- Forderungen Zur Suche Eines Atommüll-Lager in Deutschland.” Bund (2012). p. 5

17. Ibid. p. 6

18. Ibid. p. 6

19. Ibid. p. 6

20. Ibid. p. 7

21. Ibid. p. 4

22. Bergedorfer Zeitung. “Atommüll zurück in die USA” accessed 20.03.2013

23. “BUND- Forderungen Zur Suche Eines Atommüll-Lager in Deutschland.” Bund (2012). (March 20, 2013)

24. “Deutschland Trend” accessed 20.03.2013

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Katja is an International Student from Germany, in her 3rd year here at UBC. She is an International Relations major and very interested in environmental politics and international political economy. She believes that nuclear power plants, no matter how efficient, are a liability that no government or company should take on, and that the danger and long term costs of having nuclear energy outweigh the short term benefits.