– PGermany has been at the forefront of efforts to transition away from nuclear power and towards renewable energy sources with its “energy transition” initiative. The initiative has a long history but took shape in its current form in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster in 2011. At that point, German leaders committed to phasing out the existing stock of nuclear power plants by 2022 (later delayed to 2023).
Over the weekend, anti-nuclear activists’ dreams of a nuclear-free Germany finally became reality when the country stopped producing electricity from its last three remaining nuclear power plants. However, the move is being criticized by many experts—and even some environmentalists—who argue Germany is eliminating a safe and carbon-free energy source ahead of more dangerous alternatives like coal.
Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear power appears to be at odds with the country’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions. Studies have shown that shutting off nuclear power can lead to an increase in reliance on coal, which poses a public health threat. Particulate emissions from coal have been linked to health problems such as heart disease, lung cancer, and asthma, with one study estimating that the nuclear phaseout in Germany has led to more than 1,100 additional deaths per year as a result of air pollution.
Although the move has been anticipated for some time, Germany’s phaseout of nuclear power is all the more stunning because it comes at a time when Europe is grappling with high energy prices caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine. Some Germans even saw a spike in energy prices by as much as 45 % immediately following closure of the plants.
Meanwhile, countries such as Canada are taking a different approach by investing in new nuclear technologies that have the potential to be safer and more efficient than technologies of the past. Canada recently committed C$970 million ($708 million USD) in financing to develop a grid-scale small modular reactor. Canadian regulators also recently allowed a new kind of molten salt reactor from the company Terrestrial to pass an early stage of licensing review. Molten salt reactors are known to have safety advantages during meltdown scenarios, and, like small, modular reactors, they represent a new generation of nuclear power that is safer and more efficient than in the past.
Of course, the near-catastrophic incidents at Fukushima and Chernobyl prove that nuclear power is by no means risk-free. Still, experts agree that nuclear is one of the safest sources of energy in terms of mortality. From an empirical standpoint, deaths from nuclear are far fewer in number than deaths associated with competing energy sources, such as coal, oil, and gas (see figure).