Charles Komanoff


How Germany’s 'No Nukes' Has Meant More Russian Gas (and German CO2)

Had Germany not accelerated its reactor shutdowns after Fukushima, its imports of Russian gas would have been one-fifth less than the actual rate when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Because of the need to replace the lost nuclear output with methane gas or coal, Germany's all-sector emissions of carbon dioxide are 6 to 10 percent higher than they would have been without those shutdowns.

by Charles Komanoff

Posted October 21, 2022

Last March, a month into Russia's invasion of Ukraine, as Germany's reliance on fossil fuel imports from Russia threatened to undermine western support for aid to Ukraine and sanctions against Russia, I wondered how much Germany’s post-Fukushima dismantlement of its nuclear power sector had deepened its dependence on Russian methane gas to generate electricity.

I read dozens of newspaper and other media stories on Germany and Russian energy but saw nothing connecting Germany's nuke shutdowns to its need for Russian gas. So I spent a day constructing my own estimate, a process I detailed in a March 28, 2022 file memo, "Germany: 'No Nukes' means more gas imports from Russia." My main finding was this: Had Germany not accelerated its reactor shutdowns after Fukushima, its imports of Russian gas would today be one-quarter less than the actual rate. (I've now downgraded slightly my "one-fourth" to one-fifth, see below.)

I kept the memo to myself. At the time I was finalizing an essay decrying the climate consequences of the 2020-2021 closure of New York's Indian Point nuclear plant and the planned 2024-2025 closure of California's Diablo Canyon reactors, that The Nation magazine was set to publish a week later, on April 4. I wanted my piece in The Nation to stand on its own and not be muddied by my ruminations about the geopolitical implications of reactor shutdowns in Germany.

"The Case Against Closing Nuclear Power Plants"

My March 4 essay, The Case Against Closing Nuclear Power Plants, had two novel aspects.

The first was the fresh way in which I framed the closures of functional nuclear power plants as a climate blunder. Closing Indian Point, and, soon, Diablo Canyon, I wrote, was ill-advised not just because the breach would be filled for some time primarily by climate-damaging methane gas, but because erasing the nukes' carbon-free power would force new wind and solar farms to serve as stand-ins for the reactors' climate benefit, neutering their ability to drive down carbon emissions.

The second novel aspect of my Nation essay was that I wrote it at all. Decades ago, from the late 1970s into the 1990s, I enjoyed a modicum of fame and influence as the "safe energy" movement's leading documenter and explainer of the ruinous cost escalation that for decades has befallen the U.S. nuclear power sector. (Some of my writings from that period are available on the nuclear power page of my personal website on which this post appears.)

That history led some commenters to my Nation essay to either enthuse or bemoan that I had done a 180 and become a proponent of building new reactors in the U.S. and elsewhere. That's not the case, as I detail further below.

A Rebuttal of Sorts

My March memo on the consequences of Germany's nuke shutdowns would have stayed hidden, but for the appearance on Oct. 13 of an article, also in The Nation, that denied that the shutdowns had deepened the West's vulnerability to Russia's weaponized energy policies. Because that article, Nuclear Power Is a Dead End. We Must Abandon It Completely, by Paul Hockenos, a writer based in Berlin, used my April 4 article as a foil, I felt obliged to respond.

Hockenos wrote: Both France and Germany are in for bruising winters of shortages, energy skimping, and price rises, and not—as Charles Komanoff wrote in The Nation on April 4—because “Germany’s reactor closures over the past decade deepened its dependence on Russian gas” but rather because Berlin dramatically increased its reliance on Russian gas and dragged its heels on clean energy expansion. Neither country set in motion the build-out of renewables, decentralized grids, district heating, storage facilities, and energy efficiency measures fast enough to compensate for dwindling nuclear energy.

The idea that Germany is a laggard on renewable energy is patently absurd. Not only did Germany expand its combined production of wind and solar electricity by a robust 140 percent in the post-Fukushima decade (2011-2021), as I show further below; but Germany's 2021 generation from those sources per unit of land area is seven times as great as that of the United States (calculated from the two countries' respective wind+solar output in 2021 -- the U.S. figure is triple Germany's, again, see below; and on Germany's land area of 136,000 square miles vs. 2,959,000 square miles for the U.S. Lower 48, a ratio of 1 to 22.)

To be sure, Hockenos can bemoan Germany's failure to grow its renewables sector and prioritize energy efficency more than it did after Fukushima ... and I will stand with him on that score. Practically my entire career as well as my personal life since circa 1970 have been in service of reducing fossil fuels' usage and damages. But neither Hockenos's bewailing of German and U.S. dependence on fossl fuels, nor mine, alters the fact that shutting down well-functioning reactors intensifies that dependence. Indeed, Hockenos's denial of that fact in the face of both the Russia-instigated geopolitical-and-energy crisis and the ongoing climate crisis calls his entire Nation article into question.

Back, now, to my quantification of Germany's reactor shutdowns and its deepened dependence on Russian gas. Following are the steps by which I conclude that Germany's imports of methane gas from Russia at the time of Russia's invasion of Ukraine would have been one-fifth smaller had Germany not maintained and accelerated its shutdown of functioning nuclear power plants after the 2011 nuclear power disaster at Fukushima, Japan.

(Note: My March 2021 finding that Germany's post-Fukushima reactor shutdowns necessitated additional methane gas imports from Russia equivalent to one-fourth of all of Germany's methane gas imports from Russia, was based on 2020 import data. The higher 2021 import datum used here reduce the one-fourth figure to one-fifth.)

Data Sources

For current and historical data on Germany's energy consumption and electricity generation, I reached out to Clean Energy Wire, a German-based news and research organization that describes itself as a journalistic endeavor covering "the energy transition in Germany and beyond." Julian Wettengel, an officer there, forwarded me two Excel files.

One file, Stommix-Dezember2021.xls, presented Germany's annual kWh generation from each fuel source/type for 1995, 2000, 2005, and each year from 2010 through 2021. I aggregated the 15 fuel types into 4 primary categories: fossil, nuclear, wind and solar photovoltaic (combined), and everything else ("other"). A bar chart with those divisions is shown below.

The "Other" category is dominated by hydro, waste and biomass, the last of which in its climate impacts is far more akin to fossil fuels than to wind or solar, due to the fact that combusting biofuel or biomass into bioenergy releases carbon dioxide. (See the Carbon Tax Center's biomass-energy page for a quick primer.)

The other file, 02PEV_J2021.xls, had Germany's annual energy consumption in joules, also by various fuel sources/types, for 2020 and 2021.

Both data files converted instantly to English, via Google Translate.

Establishing Germany's baseline electricity production

The pertinent comparison is 2021 electricity generation vs. 2010 -- the most recent year vs. the last pre-Fukushima year.

Wind and solar combined rose by 114 TWh over that period. (One TWh = a billion kilowatt-hours and is a basic measure for national electricity accounts.) Total electricity generation fell by 38 TWh, as Germany, like other advanced industrial countries, became steadily more energy-efficient. Combining the two figures, and assuming all else equal, fossil generation, a prime source of climate-damaging carbon dioxide, should have fallen by around 150 TWh. That's because fossil-fuel power stations function as the "swing" source of electricity, whereas nuclear plants and renewable sources are run flat-out on account of their low or zero fuel costs.

Instead, fossil generation (from regular coal, "brown coal" or lignite, methane gas, and fuel oil) only fell from 2010 to 2021 by 96 TWh, rather than 150 TWh. Why? Because Germany's nuclear power output fell by 68 TWh. The decline, which amounted to roughly half of 2010 nuclear output (133 TWh), necessitated greater-than-otherwise use of fossil fuel generators.

The halving of nuclear output from 2010 was the result of policy decisions rather than problematic reactor operating performance or economics. In short, nuclear power station closures after Fukushima, as well as before, kept Germany from maximally reducing the amount of fossil fuels it had to burn to generate electricity.

Calculating the methane gas Germany uses to generate electricity

The same Excel file aggregated in the prior graph showed electricity generation from methane gas in Germany of 86.0 TWh in 2021. That was the third highest figure on record, only slightly below the apparent peak of 91.8 TWh the year before, and identical to the 2010 figure.

How much "primary energy" was required to generate last year's 86.0 TWh produced with methane gas? To estimate that figure I assumed an average "heat rate" of 9,000 Btu/kWh, on the premise that the vast majority of methane gas power generation in Germany is via single-cycle steam plants rather than more efficient combined-cycle. (For that assumption, I drew on a June 15, 2021 article in Turbomachinery International, Gas-fired plant to be built in Germany, that noted, "Relatively few combined cycle plants have been built in Germany in recent years.")

Since one TWh = 10^9 kWh, generating those 86.0 TWh at a rate of 9 x 10^3 Btu/kWh required 86 x 10^9 kWh x 9 x 10^3 Btu/kWh, or 774 x 10^12 Btu. It will be useful to convert that figure to joules. I used the standard conversion that 1 Btu = 1,055 joules to convert 774 x 10^12 Btu to 816.6 x 10^15 joules, or 817 petajoules. That's the energy content of the methane gas burned in 2021 to make electricity in Germany.

Calculating the additional methane gas Germany had to burn to make electricity because it kept shutting reactors after 2011

What is the fungibility between the decline in nuclear power's electricity output in Germany and the increase in electricity production from methane gas? Or, restated, if nuclear power output hadn't declined after Fukushima, how much of Germany's electricity production from methane gas would be avoided today?

I posit that half of today’s (2021) methane gas-fired generation would have been obviated if Germany hadn't deliberately shut down much of its nuclear power generation after Fukushima. The falloff in Germany's nuclear output from 2010, the last pre-Fukushima year, to 2021, was 67.7 TWh (from 133.0 TWh in 2010 to 65.3 TWh in 2021). To me, it seems reasonable — conservative, in fact — to posit that methane gas, the classic "swing fuel" in power generation, had to make up two-thirds of the lost nuclear output. Since two-thirds of the nuclear drop of 67.7 TWh is 45.1 TWh, that assumption would imply that power generation from methane gas today (or as of 2021) is 45.1 TWh greater than it would be if nuclear output from 2010 had remained constant.

I have adjusted that make-up figure downward slightly, to 43 TWh, a figure that is half of Germany's actual 2021 electricity production, 86 TWh, from burning methane gas.

In the preceding section I calculated that Germany burned 817 petajoules of methane gas for power generation in 2021. Half of that, or 408 petajoules of methane gas burned in 2021, the most recent full year, is then tied to shutting German reactors after Fukushima.

Relating this nuclear-shutdown-caused figure to Germany’s imports of methane gas from Russia

The second Excel file from Clean Energy Wire reports that consumption of methane gas in Germany for all purposes in 2021 was 3,258 petajoules. As we have just seen, the portion of that quantity that was necessitated by the post-Fukushima acceleration of nuclear power shutdowns was 408 petajoules last year. That amounts to 12.5%, or one-eighth, of methane gas burned last year in Germany. In other words, one-eighth of Germany's use of methane gas for all purposes in 2021 was necessitated by post-Fukushima reactor closures.

To determine how much methane gas Germany was importing from Russia at the time that Russian troops invaded Ukraine, I originally consulted an article, How reliant is the world on Russia for oil and gas?, that was posted on the BBC News website on March 25, which repored IEA data showing that in 2020, Germany imported 42.6 billion cubic meters of methane gas from Russia. As I readied this post in October, I found a more recent BBC article, How much could Nord Stream 1's closure affect Europe?, with IEA data for 2021. The graphic from that article, showing an increase in imports to Germany of Russian methane gas in 2021 to 56.2 billion cubic meters, is below:

One cubic meter of methane gas contains 35,300 Btu. Then, the 56.2 billion cubic meters imported from Russia in 2021 equate to 56.2 x 10^9 cubic meters x 35.3 x 10^3 Btu per cubic meter). That figure computes to 1,984 x 10^12 Btu.

Recall that in 2021 Germany burned 774 x 10^12 Btu of methane gas to generate electricity. If, as I estimated above, half of that is tied to Germany's closing nuclear plants after Fukushima, then letting the plants continue to operate could have avoided 387 x 10^12 Btu of methane gas-burning annually.

As a percentage of German imports from Russia (1,984 x 10^12 Btu), that amount of avoidable gas burning (387 x 10^12 Btu) is 19.5%. I therefore conclude that, had the nuclear plants that were forced to retire after Fukushima stayed open instead, German imports of Russian gas last year would have been one-fifth less than the actual rate.

Did nuclear shutdowns catalyze growth in Germany's renewables sector?

It is sometimes asserted that the phase-out of Germany's nuclear power sector since around 2000 spurred the country’s energy makeover — or energiewende — that fostered its impressive renewable-energy development. According to this argument, if Germany hadn't committed to and carried out its erasure of nuclear power, its wind and solar deployments would have been far less robust; thus it is said that while eliminating nuclear power did take away an essentially carbon-free source of electricity, it also helped elicit a separate (and more ecologically benign) carbon-free source in the form of wind turbines and photovoltaic arrays — one that will only grow.

I credit this argument somewhat. Revulsion at nuclear power in Germany indeed catalyzed policies, including feed-in tariffs as well as community-based energy governance, that in the 1990s laid the groundwork for Germany to become a wind and solar pioneer. In 2014, writing for the Carbon Tax Center's blog, I called the energiewende "the decade's most affirming climate-and-energy story" and declared that under its banner, "Germany is moving purposefully to phase out fossil fuels while also shuttering nuclear power."

Yet, eight years on, it has become harder to assert that Germany's expansion of wind and solar depended on the continuance of its nuclear phase-out after the 2011 Fukushima meltdowns.

As the table above demonstrates, over the 10-year period 2011-2021, both wind and solar grew faster in the United States, which had no explicit nuclear phase-out, than in Germany, which did; the combined electric output of wind and solar plants increased by a factor of four in the U.S. vs. around two-and-a-half in Germany.

While Germany's renewables growth in the past decade is still notable, and its present-day per capita wind and solar outputs still exceed those in the U.S. (and, as noted, with far greater per-square-mile deployment as well), the more rapid expansion in the U.S. undercuts the notion that Germany had to shrink its nuclear power sector in order to expand its renewable electricity production.

Fall 2022 Update

German imports of Russian methane gas have diminished sharply from early spring to the present. In June 2022, Gazprom, Russia's state-controlled energy behemoth, cut by 60% the flow of methane gas into the key Nord Stream 1 undersea pipeline to Germany. In July, Gazprom halted shipments via Nord Stream 1, ostensibly for maintenance but perhaps also as a thinly veiled threat to Germany and other NATO countries that imposed trade sanctions on Russia. In September, damaging explosions led to cessation of methane gas flows through Nord Stream 1.

The shrinkage in Germany's methane gas imports from Russia has triggered a shift in that country's electricity production from methane gas to coal — both "brown coal" (lignite) and ordinary coal. The New York Times reported on June 23 that three lignite (soft coal)-fired power plants which two years ago were marked for retirement this September were instead being kept in service — doubtless to take the place of gas-fired generators whose Russian fuel supply has been stopped.

This backsliding is exacerbating the environmental damages associated with combusting fossil fuels to make electricity — dangers to both climate, on account of coal's greater per-Btu and per-kWh carbon emissions relative to methane gas, and human health, because of coal-fired power plants' far greater emissions of particulates, nitrogen oxides and other health-damaging toxics.

This war-caused shift from gas to coal would be far lesser in magnitude but for the post-2011 shutdowns of German nuclear power plants that impeded the country's efforts to reduce and eliminate the dependence of the electricity system on fossil fuels.

The post-Fukushima reactor shutdowns are raising Germany's carbon emissions by 6 to 10 percent

The "missing" 67.7 nuclear terawatt-hours (the difference between 2010 and 2021 electricity generation by Germany's reactors) must be made up by increased usage of fossil-fuel power plants. That's because zero-carbon wind and solar are already maxed out, as are energy efficiency and conservation — notwithstanding Paul Hockenos's (and my) wishes that those benign sectors were being more fully exploited.

That means greater reliance on gas- and coal-fired plants, which emit, on average, around 1.2 and 2.1 pounds of carbon dioxide per kWh generated. Converting to metric units, the increased fossil output of 67.7 TWh per year caused by the post-Fukushima reactor shutdowns is today responsible for between 37 million and 64 million tonnes (metric tons) of additional annual emissions of CO2.

Total CO2 emissions from all sources in Germany — not just power plants but motor vehicles, aircraft, refineries, factories, home furnaces, etc. — in 2021 were 629 million tonnes, according to BP's comprehensive and authoritative 2022 Statistical Review of World Energy. That figure includes between 37 million (if all of the replacement generation was from gas-fired plants) and 64 million (if from coal and lignite) tonnes due to the post-Fukushima reactor shutdowns. The range thus equates to between 6 and 10 percent of total carbon emissions.

Possible Future Calculations

Perhaps contrary to appearances, I don't relish calculating the carbon and other fossil fuel consequences of shutting nuclear power plants, whether in Germany, the United States, or elsewhere. My time is better spent advancing carbon pricing through the Carbon Tax Center, which I direct; getting congestion pricing for New York City across the finish line, an effort to which I've contributed mightily; and supporting New York's livable-streets movement that works to supplant personal motor vehicles with better transit, bicycling and walking.

Still, I will gladly perform additional such calculations from time to time, once nuclear power interests — vendors, trade associations, other reactor boosters — come out earnestly and vocally in support of robust carbon pricing.

Why they haven't yet done so is mystifying, considering that a serious carbon price — one beginning at or very quickly reaching $50 per ton of CO2 and rising steadily to triple digits — would fabulously (and deservedly) monetize nuclear power plants' climate benefit of producing electricity with virtually no carbon emissions.

Pro-nuclear support for serious and sustained carbon pricing is woefully overdue. If nuclear owners, operators and proponents wish to tout nuclear power's ability to counter climate change, let them also tout, and advocate legislation enshrining, carbon pricing's ability to cut carbon emissions across the board, which, I argued in a second essay in The Nation last spring, on April 30, The Climate Movement In Its Own Way, carbon pricing can do more holistically and powerfully than nuclear power alone.

Finally, I wish to state that notwithstanding my carbon-tax advocacy, I applaud the multiple, synergistic climate provisions of the Biden administration's Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, even though its thrust — subsidizing clean power to bring down its cost — is philosophically opposite to the intent of carbon taxes, which aim to make dirty energy more costly in the marketplace. My Carbon Tax Center devotes a lengthy and still-evolving page to the virtues of the legislation.)