By the end of this year, the German government’s “Commission on Growth, Structural Change and Employment” (known more simply as the coal exit commission) has been given a unenviable task. The thirty or so individuals who will sit on it must map out the end of coal power in Germany, determine how the German economy can cut emissions to meet climate targets, and find ways to soften the blow to German coal regions.
This would qualify as a monumental remit under any circumstances. As the recent controversy over commission co-chair Ronald Pofalla’s proposal shows, overcoming the influence of the German coal sector will be no easy task. Germany, however, presents one additional challenge that will make it far more difficult for this commission to find an optimal solution for the nation’s energy security: an irrational fear of (and opposition to) nuclear energy that Berlin has transformed into official policy and is now trying to impose on the rest of Europe.
From a purely domestic perspective, Angela Merkel’s 2011 decision to shut Germany’s nuclear plants and rely on coal instead (ostensibly on safety grounds) has made her countrymen less safe, not more. Two years after the decision, in 2013, over 3,600 people in Germany died for reasons related to coal – a higher rate than any other EU member state. Just over half of those deaths were attributable to coal use in Germany itself, but nearly 1,800 of them could be traced back to coal burned in other EU countries.
While that human cost is tragic, it should hardly have come as a surprise. In that same year, a NASA study co-authored by James Hansen (a pioneering figure in the science of global warming) found that use of nuclear energy over fossil fuels had saved 1.8 million lives worldwide between 1971-2009. While the German public fears the theoretical danger of a (highly unlikely) nuclear accident, the lignite and hard coal that together provide 36.6% of their country’s energy mix are responsible for thousands of premature deaths every year.
Instead of pushing its own industries and its neighbors towards less polluting power sources, the German political class has spent the past several years sheltering domestic coal interests while Merkel’s government pressures other EU member states to follow its now militantly anti-nuclear lead. Their most immediate target: the Czech Republic.
Germany is currently trying to bloc Prague from expanding its Temelin nuclear power plant, working in tandem with Austria – which is so anti-nuclear it sued Britain over state aid to Hinkley Point C and is suing the EU for letting Hungary move ahead with its Paks II plant. The Czech Republic, already behind on its emissions targets, has limited renewable energy potential and would be forced to resort to burning more fossil fuels without nuclear energy. The 2015 State Energy Policy calls for nuclear power to provide somewhere between 46-58% of Czech electricity by 2040. To reach that target, however, Prague will need to overcome opposition from Berlin and Vienna to obtain exemptions from the EU laws governing government bids.
Temelin is just one of several European nuclear energy projects that have transformed into lightning rods of interstate tensions, and Germany and Austria are not the only EU member states subtly advocating for fossil fuels. The polemic surrounding the Astravets nuclear energy plant on the Lithuania-Belarus border offers another example of how European debates over nuclear energy often have only tangential links with reality.
Lithuanian lawmakers have sought EU support to block Astravets, built with Russian technology, on the grounds it constitutes a threat to their national security. Vilnius consistently raises the spectre of Russia using the plant as a geopolitical weapon. Not only has Lithuania vowed to prohibit energy exports from Astravets to counter this perceived threat, but also seeks to disconnect from the BRELL agreement governing its electric grid entirely. BRELL has regulated the Lithuanian grid – along with those of Estonia, Latvia, Russia, and Belarus – since the end of the Soviet Union.
The three Baltic countries now plan to join a more “European” network, which is to say reinforcing existing links with the Nordic countries and Poland. Desynchronizing from BRELL will cost €800 million, and the EU will have to bear much of the cost.
The countries justify this transition by raising the specter of Russian “energy blackmail” leveraging their shared electric grid. As one expert recently made clear in the National Interest, however, Lithuania has more than enough installed power capacity (counting both domestic capacity and imports from its neighbors in Sweden and Poland) to provide a healthy security margin in the event of any disruption. Lithuania’s peak winter load is estimated at no more than 2.3 GW. Between its own generation capacity and the power provided by the LitPol and NordBalt, it has 3.2 GW of capacity entirely independent of its eastern neighbors.
Lithuania’s complaints that Astravets cut nuclear safety corners follow a similar pattern. The plant recently passed EU stress tests and has also gotten the green light from a number of IAEA missions. In 2016, the IAEA’s director Yukiya Amano singled Belarus out as one of the most advanced “newcomer” countries developing nuclear energy.
Most importantly, staunch Lithuanian opposition to Astravets – like the German public’s opposition to their domestic nuclear capacity – ignores the benefits of the plant’s low-carbon energy to the benefit of polluting fossil fuels. Lithuania closed its own Ignalina nuclear plant (which provided 70% of the country’s electricity) at the EU’s behest in 2009. To make up for the resulting shortfall, Lithuania has since launched a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal at Klaipeda and is now supporting importing LNG from the United States to ensure a diversified supply.
Between them, Germany, Austria, and Lithuania form three members of a growing European club whose efforts, if successful, will effectively torpedo one of the EU’s best clean energy bets. While policymakers in Berlin, Vienna, and Vilnius may claim they are acting in the name of safety, their discreet advocacy of fossil fuels has direct human costs that far outweigh the hypothetical threats they are supposedly protecting Europe against.