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France ramps up nuclear power as Germany closes plants in the name of clean energy

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: And I'm Rob Schmitz in Trier, Germany, where the chants of young protesters are the only sounds echoing through the freezing alleyways of this medieval town along the border with France.





SCHMITZ: They're calling for an end to burning coal and to nuclear power. This town lies just miles away from the French town of Cattenom, home to a nuclear power plant and a source of anxiety for the town's 100,000 residents. Elisabeth Quare is a member of Anti-Nuclear Power Trier, and she's dressed in a cycling outfit.

ELISABETH QUARE: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: She says she steers clear of biking on roads where she sees the plant's towers. She doesn't want to be reminded of them. But lately, it's been hard for her to shut out the Cattenom plant. The French government just approved a 10-year extension of one of the plant's reactors.

QUARE: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: She says France's president is ramping up nuclear power because he is in election mode. Quare is thrilled Germany is abandoning its nuclear program. The government removed three plants from the grid last month and will do the same for Germany's three remaining plants a year from now. But France's renewed commitment to nuclear has Quare worried.

QUARE: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: She holds up a map of France's 56 reactors. Roughly half are located along its international borders. In the event of an accident, radiation would blow east.

HENRIK TE HEESEN: Due to the wind conditions we have, all this nuclear waste would be blown to Germany, to Switzerland, to Luxembourg.

SCHMITZ: Henrik te Heesen is professor of renewable energy technologies at the Trier University of Applied Sciences. He says Germany has achieved a remarkable goal in the past decade as it phases out nuclear. It's replaced it with renewable energy. The country still burns coal for more than a quarter of its energy supply, and Germany hopes to replace that with both natural gas and more renewables. Distribution of all this new wind and solar power has been a challenge, he admits, but it helps make Germany a net exporter of energy, like France, with its robust nuclear program. But te Heesen says there are hidden costs to nuclear.

TE HEESEN: The nuclear power, of course, is reliable because it produces day and night - 7,000 hours a year. But the costs are rather high due to high investment costs and high maintenance costs and, of course, all the other risks we have during the operation phase of a nuclear power plant.

SCHMITZ: The biggest risk, of course, is the disposal of nuclear waste. It remains radioactive for thousands of years, which has turned Germans off from the power source. In the 1960s and '70s, when nuclear power became popular, Germany opened several plants. But a large anti-nuclear movement developed. Germany's front-row seat in the Cold War fueled this anxiety. And in 1986, when fallout from the Chernobyl disaster exposed parts of the country to radiation, public opinion soured. The 2011 Fukushima disaster was another blow.


ANGELA MERKEL: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: Chancellor Angela Merkel soon caved to public pressure and announced Germany would phase out all nuclear power within 10 years. Her government kept that promise. Germany's new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, wants to speed up the phase-out of coal and eventually natural gas. He promises that by the end of this decade, 80% of Germany's energy will be from renewables. And he doesn't include nuclear in that category.


OLAF SCHOLZ: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: In his first speech to parliament, Scholz said that nuclear power used to seem like progress, but Germany has now moved on. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Trier.

(SOUNDBITE OF KRAFTWERK'S "OHM SWEET OHM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.