Berlin has ruled out extending the lifetime of its existing nuclear fleet, brushing aside energy security concerns after Moscow threatened to halt gas supplies to Germany in retaliation for Western sanctions in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.
Germany began winding up its 9.5 GW nuclear fleet capacity at the end of last year, shutting down 4.2 GW across three sites as part of a nation-wide effort to end nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima accident.
That decision came under scrutiny after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine two weeks ago, which raised concerns about a potential stoppage of gas supplies coming from Russia.
The government’s enquiry concluded on Tuesday (8 March) that keeping the country’s remaining nuclear power fleet online was “not recommended” at this stage and that it was too late to reactive the plants that had already been shut down.
“We have again examined very carefully whether a longer operation of the nuclear power plants would help us in this foreign policy situation,” German Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck said in a statement on Tuesday.
“The answer is negative – it would not help us,” he concluded.
The assessment was conducted by the economy ministry held by Habeck and the environment ministry headed by Steffi Lemke, who are both from the Green party.
The government’s assessment of the merits of nuclear power comes after Moscow openly threatened to halt gas supplies via the Nord Stream 1 pipeline to Germany following Berlin’s decision to freeze the certification process of Nord Stream 2.
“We know we are fully entitled to take a ‘mirror’ decision and place an embargo on gas transit via Nord Stream 1 which is presently running at 100% capacity. We have not taken that decision yet,” said Alexander Novak, deputy chief of the Russian government.
Germany’s negative assessment on nuclear cited legal and practical uncertainties as the basis for the decision. The permit to operate the three plants that were shut off on 31 December could not be reactivated in a “legally certain way,” the ministries explained in a statement.
And even if the decision to restart the nuclear plants had been taken, the effect would likely not be felt in time for the 2022 winter season, they argued.
Furthermore, the three plants that are currently still running would not have sufficient fuel available after 31 December 2022, which would result in “no additional electricity generation” for the coming winter.
Extending the runtime of the three running plants would also require a safety assessment, which was last performed in 2009. Significant retrofitting would be needed to restart them and ensure they meet “state-of-the-art” safety requirements for a longer period, the ministries argued.
The costs associated with getting personnel back on board and the safety assessment would require a runtime extension of three to five years. This is what the state of Bavaria had been calling for.
“We must not shut down anything that is still running: That is why we need a moderate extension of the operating times of nuclear power plants for 3 to 5 years,” tweeted Markus Söder, the minister-president of Bavaria.
In their analysis, the two ministries “assume that other options will be available in the period until 2028 to ensure sufficient electricity supply despite gas shortages,” the assessment reads.
“From autumn 2023 onwards, they would supply additional electricity volumes, but there is hardly any replacement of gas volumes, since gas-fired power plants without CHP are hardly used in a gas crisis situation anyway,” the statement said.
Pressure is mounting on Germany to halt imports of Russian energy, which critics say is financing the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine.
But German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said continued imports of Russian energy are “essential” for German citizens. “Europe’s supply of energy for heat generation, mobility, power supply and industry cannot be secured in any other way at the moment,” he said.
A total embargo on Russian imports carries a “real danger of energy undersupply in certain sectors,” Habeck said on Tuesday.
While the newish German government was initially planning to phase out coal by 2030 in a best-case scenario, it has now committed to keeping coal power plants in operation and at the ready for now.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon and Nathalie Weatherald]