Ania Wellere is an undergraduate student at Denison University, currently completing her Bachelor of Arts in Global Health. She hopes to have a career in health equity and policy.
From one perspective, the war in Ukraine has tightened the bonds of Europe’s liberal democracies, and not just informally. The European Union has implemented a historically unprecedented sanctions package in response to Russian aggression and, for the first time in its history, used its budget to supply military aid, in this case to the Ukrainian government.
From another perspective, though, things are not so rosy. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has highlighted differences between EU member states in the area of energy policy. For example, Germany’s (and others’) dependence on Russian natural gas contributed heavily to the EU’s decision to exempt Russian energy from sanctions.
Nowhere are these energy contrasts starker than in nuclear policy. At its peak, nuclear power constituted a quarter of Germany’s electricity generation. But after decades of political back-and-forth, the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan was the nail in the coffin for German nuclear energy. In response to public opinion and dedicated anti-nuclear mobilization, German officials have since made it clear that they plan to phase out nuclear power entirely by the end of this year. As a result, Germany is one of the highest emitters of CO2 in the world, producing 739 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. Despite lofty objectives to replace nuclear with renewables, at least in the short term coal will probably fill the void.
On the other hand, France—the second most populous EU member state, after Germany—is a nuclear devotee. With 70% of its electricity generated via its 56 nuclear reactors, France has taken great pride in nuclear energy, and the French people even perceive it to be a kind of French invention.
Of course, France’s committed relationship with nuclear hasn’t only made it more secure from Russian leverage; it’s also put the country well ahead of less-nuclear peers in the global fight to reduce carbon emissions. And France—which accounts for over half of the nuclear energy generated in the European Union—wants to bring other member states into a low emissions, nuclear-driven future with it.
But as France eagerly pushes forward, Germany’s decision to eliminate nuclear by the end of 2022 could complicate not only its own ability to meet the 2050 climate-neutral goal laid out in the Paris Climate Accords, but the European Union’s as a whole. Towards the end of her time as chancellor, Angela Merkel stated that with respect to emissions, “Germany has done a lot… but what has been achieved is not sufficient.” Although Germany isn’t alone in its setbacks regarding emissions cuts, it routinely threatens to hinder progress across the EU by rejecting pro-nuclear proposals from France and other countries. While member states are responsible in large part for their own energy policies, the EU plays a significant regulatory role and has the capacity to facilitate member states’ adoption of new forms of energy. Persistent policy differences—especially between the Union’s two largest powers—will surely continue to present challenges in the EU as it aims to reach the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement.
According to public opinion surveys, over 50% of Germans are positive or ambivalent about nuclear energy, if less enthusiastic about it than peer nations in Europe. However, the leading party in Germany’s coalition government—the Social Democrats—and their junior partners—the Greens—along with anti-nuclear activists remain in favor of the transition away from nuclear power. Worries about nuclear waste, the susceptibility of nuclear energy to human error, intermittent supply, natural disasters, and terrorist attacks remain prominent. In other words, when it comes to nuclear power, Germany is experiencing the same trials and tribulations as other healthy democracies, except that in this case, its opposition within the EU could get in the way of other European democracies’ ability to make headway on climate and security issues.
Germany’s energy policy direction is a little unsettling for countries that have different perspectives on what a zero-carbon future is going to look like. Like France, other European countries are betting on nuclear power and being rid of fossil fuels. Due to the current circumstances, Germany’s Economy Minister, Robert Habeck, is pushing for the Bundestag to swiftly pass the Renewable Energy Sources Act with the hopes that, “these steps would help renewable sources (i.e. solar and wind) account for 80% of Germany’s electricity by 2030 and all of them by 2035.”
Given that the EU is designed to facilitate democratic decision-making among a diverse group of states, Germany must find a way to reconcile the desires of their citizens and those of neighboring countries. The different approaches in environmental policies by leadership figures within the Union, like France and Germany, generates questions as to what the future of not only Germany, but the entire EU, could look like.Subscribe to Spectacles