Greta Thunberg Says Ditching Nuclear Power While Keeping Coal Is 'A Mistake'

The famed teenage activist wades into one of Germany's fiercest debates.

Earlier this year, Greta Thunberg strongly opposed including nuclear power on the European Union’s list of approved forms of “green” energy as the bloc looked to decarbonize its economy.

But as the war in Ukraine spurs historic energy shortages across Europe, the Swedish teenage activist said this week it’s better to keep reactors going rather than turn to coal-fired power plants.

“Personally, I think it’s a very bad idea to focus on coal when this is already in place,” Thunberg said.

Before calling it “a very infected debate,” Thunberg told 19-year-old German talk-show host Sandra Maischberger: “If we have them already running, I feel it’s a mistake to close them down in order to focus on coal.”

Ahead of the interview’s Wednesday night air date on the broadcaster ARD, an English-language clip began to circulate online Tuesday,

Germany began rapidly shutting down its nuclear fleet after the 2011 Fukushima accident in Japan. While Europe’s largest economy deployed large numbers of renewables, the country became heavily dependent on natural gas from Russia to provide heat and backup electricity when solar and wind power underperformed. Once Russia’s invasion of Ukraine disrupted that supply, Germany started facing severe energy shortages, crippling its industrial sector and sending utility bills skyrocketing.

Opposition to nuclear energy has cut across ideological lines in Germany. The “Energiewende” transition from atomic power began under conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel. Her successor, Olaf Scholz, a center-left Social Democratic Party member, expected to continue that trajectory, particularly since his ruling coalition includes the fiercely anti-nuclear Green Party. Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck, who serves as economy minister and oversees energy policy, is from the Green Party.

Many countries that turned against nuclear power after Fukushima have recently reversed course amid soaring energy costs and concerns over the grip autocratic countries like Russia, Saudi Arabia, and China have over the supply chains for fossil fuels and renewables.

Japan vowed to restart its mothballed nuclear reactors. South Korea elected a new conservative president who pledged to undo his liberal predecessor’s efforts to shrink the country’s nuclear industry. Last month, California lawmakers voted to keep the state’s last nuclear plant open through the decade’s end.

An aerial view shows steam rising from the Isar nuclear power plant, which includes the Isar 2 reactor, on August 14, 2022 in Essenbach, Germany. Isar 2 is one of the last three still operating nuclear power plants in Germany and all three are scheduled to shut down by the end of this year. However, due to the disruption in energy imports from Russia, politicians and other actors are debating extending the operational life of the plants. Some are advocating an extension until the middle of 2023, while others are pushing for longer. Approximately 80% of people polled among the general public support some kind of extension.
An aerial view shows steam rising from the Isar nuclear power plant, which includes the Isar 2 reactor, on August 14, 2022 in Essenbach, Germany. Isar 2 is one of the last three still operating nuclear power plants in Germany and all three are scheduled to shut down by the end of this year. However, due to the disruption in energy imports from Russia, politicians and other actors are debating extending the operational life of the plants. Some are advocating an extension until the middle of 2023, while others are pushing for longer. Approximately 80% of people polled among the general public support some kind of extension.
Alexandra Beier via Getty Images

Despite three high-profile disasters over the past eight decades, nuclear energy remains the most efficient source of electricity production ever harnessed by humans – among the safest, producing vast sums of 24/7 power without carbon emissions.

Supporters of atomic energy say reactors are unfairly conflated with nuclear weapons, and argue that fear of radiation accidents are disproportionate to the benefits nuclear reactors provide and the harm other energy sources, particularly fossil fuels, cause. Opponents have long said the risks of an accident are too great and cast the relatively small volumes of radioactive waste produced from reactors as a crisis with no clear solution.

Mirroring Germany’s retreat from nuclear power, Belgium shut down its first reactor last month, despite calls to extend its operation through the current crisis.

While most Germans polled over the summer supported keeping their country’s last three nuclear plants open, voters in Lower Saxony delivered Scholz’s party a decisive win this week in a regional election widely seen as a referendum on the national government’s handling of the crisis. Like at the national level, the victorious Social Democrats will likely form a coalition with the Greens.

The German parliament will be forced to debate keeping nuclear plants open if a petition currently circulating generates 50,000 signatures worldwide in the next three days.

If things continue to worsen, however, the Lower Saxony election also offered a dark harbinger: Germany’s far-right party doubled its share of the vote.

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