By midnight on Saturday in Germany, the last three still active nuclear reactors in the country will be closed, after a long and controversial campaign to decommission nuclear energy, which lasted more than twenty years. The closure of the last three reactors marks the end of the use of nuclear energy in Germany, comes in the midst of the energy crisis caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and poses a whole series of questions and problems for the most important industrial country in Europe.

The three reactors to be shut down are those in Emsland in Lower Saxony, the Isar 2 plant in Bavaria, and the Neckarwestheim plant in Baden-Württemberg in southeastern Germany.

The three reactors supplied 6.5 percent of Germany’s electricity needs, but until twenty years ago they were part of a network of nuclear power plants, 19 in all, which managed to guarantee the country a third of its electricity . Since the 2000s, however, the plants have been gradually decommissioned, amid much controversy and postponements. Today the electricity that is no longer supplied by power plants is partly produced thanks to renewable sources such as wind and solar, but above all it is generated by burning coal.

The slowness of the transition to renewables and Germany’s inability to find alternatives to nuclear power is one of the reasons why the decommissioning of the plants has created so much controversy. In 2022, coal was the largest source of electricity generation in Germany with over 30 percent, ahead of wind (22 percent), gas (13 percent) and solar (10 percent) . The rest of the production was guaranteed by biomass, hydroelectricity and nuclear energy.

The energy crisis caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine has further complicated matters, because it has deprived Germany (and all of Europe) of essential imports of Russian gas and oil, causing, among other things, prices to rise significantly . The three reactors that will be closed on Saturday should have already been closed in 2022, but due to the energy crisis, the government of Chancellor Olaf Scholz had agreed to delay their decommissioning until April 15, 2023. After that date, however, the government he did not accept further postponements.

Germany’s relationship with nuclear energy has always been very troubled.

Since the 1970s, the emergence of a strong anti-nuclear movement led to the creation of the Green Party, which today is one of the strongest in Europe. In 2002 the government of Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who was supported by the Greens, decided that all nuclear power plants in the country would be shut down by 2022.

A few years later, the center-right Christian Democrat Angela Merkel was elected chancellor, who tried to postpone the decommissioning of the plants, and had a measure approved which envisaged their closure no longer in 2022, but in 2036. Everything changed in 2011, with the disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in Japan, which led to one of the worst nuclear accidents in history.

In Germany, where the anti-nuclear movement had already protested the Merkel government’s decision to postpone the closure of the plants, large demonstrations were organised. On March 26, 2011, over 250,000 people demonstrated asking not to ignore the Fukushima affair and calling for the closure of all nuclear power plants as soon as possible. Four days later, Merkel announcement the return to Schröder’s original plan: all reactors should have requested by 2022, thus eliminating the postponement approved a few months earlier. The decision contained rather peremptory formulations and did not provide for the possibility of postponing the closures again.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused further controversy, as the German government has been forced to reopen some coal-fired power plants to deal with the end of Russian gas shipments. Even Greta Thunberg, one of the main exponents of environmental activism, had defined the closure of already active nuclear plants as “a bad idea” if this leads to greater use of coal.

However, the process of decommissioning nuclear plants was now impossible to stop or to postpone further, at least according to statements by some industry experts. The companies that operate them had been preparing for decommissioning for years, having shut down nuclear fuel supplies, cut staff, and modified their operations for closure. In the last decade, Germany has mainly honed its skills in shutting down and decommissioning reactors, with the prospect of the end of nuclear power in the country. Reversing a process that has been going on for years in a few months would be impossible, at least under current conditions.