Europe 1 with AFP 16:51 p.m., April 15, 2023

On Saturday, Germany shut down its last three nuclear reactors. In the evening, the last power plants will be disconnected from the power grid. This culminates in an exit from atomic energy that has been engaged for a long time and remains controversial in the context of the climate emergency.

Commitment kept: Germany closes its last three nuclear reactors on Saturday, the culmination of a long-standing exit from atomic energy that remains controversial in the context of the climate emergency. By midnight (22:00 local time), the power plants in Isar 2 (southeast), Neckarwestheim (southwest) and Emsland (northwest) will be disconnected from the power grid. "It will be a very emotional act for colleagues to shut down the plant for the last time," said Guido Knott, CEO of PreussenElektra, which operates Isar 2, a few hours before the deadline.

A "nuclear phase-out party"

The German government had granted them a reprieve of a few weeks, compared to the judgment initially set for 31 December, but without questioning the decision to turn the page. Europe's largest economy is thus opening a new chapter, challenged to wean itself off fossil fuels, while managing the gas crisis triggered by the war in Ukraine. "The risks associated with nuclear energy are definitely uncontrollable," Environment Minister Steffi Lemke said this week. They worry large sections of the population and have cemented the environmental movement.

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Greenpeace organized Saturday at the foot of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin a farewell to the atom, symbolized by a dinosaur remains defeated by the anti-nuclear movement. "Finally, nuclear energy is history!" proclaims this NGO. In Munich, a "nuclear phase-out party" brought together a few hundred people, AFPTV found. "Nuclear energy, thank you," the conservative daily FAZ wrote on Saturday, stressing the benefits it has brought to Germany.

16 reactors closed since 2003

The nuclear phase-out has come a long way. After a first decision by Berlin, in the early 2000s, to gradually abandon the atom, former Chancellor Angela Merkel had accelerated the process in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Since 2003, the country has already shut down 16 reactors. The invasion of Ukraine could have called everything into question. Deprived of Russian gas, most of which Moscow has interrupted most of the flows, Germany has found itself exposed to the darkest economic scenarios. The winter finally passed without shortages, Russia was replaced by other gas suppliers but the consensus around the nuclear phase-out crumbled. In a recent poll for the public television channel ARD, 59% of respondents believe that abandoning nuclear power in this context is not a good idea.

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Germany must "expand the supply of energy and not restrict it further," lamented the president of the German chambers of commerce, Peter Adrian, in the daily Rheinische Post. "This is a strategic mistake, in a geopolitical environment that is still tense," said Bijan Djir-Sarai, secretary general of the liberal FDP party, which is a member of the government coalition alongside the Social Democrats and ecologists. The last three plants supplied only 6% of the energy produced in Germany last year, while nuclear accounted for 30.8% in 1997. Meanwhile, the share of renewables in the production mix has reached 46% in 2022, up from less than 25% a decade earlier. "After 20 years of energy transition, renewables now produce about one and a half times more electricity than nuclear produced at its peak," Simon Müller, Germany director of the Agora Energiewende research centre, told AFP.

Coal up 8% in 2022

But in Germany, the biggest emitter of CO2 in the European Union, coal still accounts for a third of electricity production, with an 8% increase last year to cope with the absence of Russian gas. "The revival of fossil energy to compensate for the exit of nuclear power does not go in the direction of climate action" carried out at the European level, teased this week the French Ministry of Energy Transition.

The France, with 56 reactors, remains the most nuclearized country per capita. At the European level, differences are sharp between Paris and Berlin on the role of the atom. Germany prefers to focus on its goal of covering 80% of its electricity needs from renewables by 2030, while closing its coal-fired power plants by 2038 at the latest. But here, uncertainty reigns. "Where and how should renewable energy be produced? Everyone in this country at least agrees on one thing: not at home," the Süddeutsche Zeitung daily said on Saturday.