Germany’s Nuclear Choice: Russian Energy Crisis Forces a Reckoning
“We are the makers of our own fate,” said Christian Lindner (FDP, Free Democratic Party), German federal minister of finance, in a TV interview not too long ago. This statement was made in the context of being asked if Vladimir Putin had had a hold over Germany, considering its rather dire energy situation, now, but especially going into winter.
Torn between a decade-long reliance on cheap Russian gas on the one side and a sudden desperation to be energy independent in the face of the Ukraine war, Germany is now in the uncomfortable position to have neither. To use the words of Robert Habeck (Green Party), federal minister for economic affairs and climate action, “every kilowatt-hour counts.” Germany has waited too long to side—the time is up.
According to the Federal Network Agency, 55 percent of Germany’s imported gas derives from Russia, mainly via the gas pipeline Nord Stream 1. Of late, Germany has seen a decline in received gas, which, according to Russian sources, was the consequence of “technical problems.” It doesn’t take a lot of doubt to see how the current geopolitical circumstances might have played a role in this too. Now, Germany receives roughly 40 percent of previous levels of gas imports via Nord Stream 1, drastically decreasing its reserves. For over a week in July, this was even down to zero.
But how did Germany get itself into such a morally and strategically dubious situation?
Nord Stream 1 was questionable to begin with, let alone its sequel: Nord Stream 2. The ten-billion-euro project received widespread criticism from various sides during the years of its construction. After its completion last September, Chancellor Olaf Scholz abandoned the project in February this year as a reaction to the war in Ukraine.
Germany gave the green light to build Nord Stream 2 in 2015, four years after it began pumping gas via Nord Stream 1 in 2011, which is also the same year Germany made another pivotal decision regarding its future energy supply: exiting nuclear energy for good.
Back then, this issue had been long campaigned for by the Green Party, received support from other parties including the FDP with then general secretary Christian Lindner and was finally put into legislation by Angela Merkel and the CDU (Christian Democratic Union). Until the end of this year, the last three standing nuclear power plants in Germany are scheduled to be put out of service.
A survey has shown that now in light of the recent events, seven out of ten citizens prefer the continuation of said power plants. Almost ironically, even most Green Party voters are in favor, according to the survey.
The debate about nuclear energy today is as divisive as it was in 2011, but this time the roles seem to be oddly reversed: the FDP with Lindner are for the continuation. Friedrich Merz (CDU) and Markus Söder (CSU, Christian Social Union) support this, even though back in 2011 all three of them agreed that quitting nuclear energy was eventually the right thing to do.
Opposed to the idea of keeping the remaining power plants switched on are the Green Party and the SPD, the social democrats, which doesn’t come as a surprise. What is a surprise, however, was the proposition by Robert Habeck (Green) to instead burn more coal over the next years—hardly the environmentally friendly alternative people expected from the federal minister for economic affairs and climate action.
Opposing nuclear energy in 2011 was about as trendy and popular as low-rise jeans in the 2000s: back then, it got those into office that now want to put the option of reviving nuclear power plants back on the table. Christian Lindner goes a step further and even mentions the forbidden F-word: fracking. Opinions that once caused outrage or were deemed too politically risky to address are suddenly within the realm of possibilities again now that the tide—rather predictably—has turned.
If this episode demonstrates anything, then it is the high time preference that comes about with assuming political office. Cheap, fast and readily available gas is all well and good in the here and now, and the idea that Russia could become a geopolitical threat to the nation’s sovereignty is something that can be left to future Germany to worry about. Certainly, after the foreshadowing of what was about to come when Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, you have a recipe for disaster.
Herr Lindner, Germany has already made its own fate in 2011. Now it is facing the consequences.