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  • It ain’t easy being Green: Germany’s nuclear power struggle


It ain’t easy being Green: Germany’s nuclear power struggle

The Greens supporting nuclear energy? Konrad Werner sheds light on the party’s desperate cling to power.

The Neckarwestheim nuclear power plant, north of Stuttgart. Photo: IMAGO / Sven Simon

Even politicians know that this is an age of signs and wonders. In June this year, Environment Minister Steffi Lemke mentioned that the Spree has been “flowing backwards more and more often recently”. Lemke said this during a speech at something called the ‘Forschungskonferenz Klimaresiliente Schwammstadt’, or Research Conference Climate-Resilient Sponge City, an event about how to make cities adapt to climate change (make them more spongey). Talk or no talk, that’s what governments have to do.

The Spree going the wrong way isn’t news. In fact, according to the Berlin city government, it has washed backwards on an average of around 21 days a year since 2010. Other local rivers have it even worse: the Panke, after which the district of Pankow is named, has regularly started to dry up in the summer.

What is more interesting about this speech is that Lemke, a senior Green Party figure, was using the Spree’s problem as an argument against relying on nuclear power: rivers are vital for nuclear power because we use them to cool the fuel rods, and if they run dry, nuclear accidents are more likely. In June this year, a nuclear power station in France had to slow its output down by three-quarters because the river Rhône was too low.

Houseboats on the Spree in the early morning. Photo: IMAGO / blickwinkeliesex

But the choices are limited, which is why Steffi Lemke joined the rest of the Green Party at the party conference in Bonn last month to vote in favour of keeping two southern nuclear power stations running until April next year. In the end, Olaf Scholz actually overruled his Cabinet and kept all three of Germany’s remaining nuclear power stations online until that time.

But what really shows how desperate things are is the other vote that was taken this month. At the Bonn conference, the Green Party also voted in favour of allowing the energy company RWE to raze the village of Lützerath, North Rhine-Westphalia, to allow room for expanding its brown coal power station there. In return, the company promised to phase out its coal power operations in the state by 2030 rather than 2038.

Both these decisions were obviously forced by practical reasons (the war in Ukraine has made things complicated for Germany), but they’re also awkward political compromises for the Greens. Nuclear power is by far the most expensive way of generating energy and, given the river problem, not sustainable. Meanwhile, being anti-nuclear was a founding principle of the party in the first place – the Greens were born of the 1980s anti-nuclear movement.

High-voltage pylons and overhead lines in Neckarwestheim. Photo: IMAGO / Arnulf Hettrich

Keeping the two power stations in southern Germany running for longer also means making a compromise with the Free Democratic Party (FDP), the smallest and most right-wing of the three parties in Olaf Scholz’s government. That, too, was a problem that needed to be solved: the FDP had started to become increasingly agitated ever since its slide in the polls, underlined by its tanking in the Lower Saxony election. An unhappy FDP means instability for a government already under pressure. In other words, things are so desperate that the Greens have become the party willing to be centrist to stay in power. Truly, we are learning a lot about compromise these days. And we haven’t even talked about the arms deals with Saudi Arabia.

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