German nuclear operators cool talk of delaying phase-out over Ukraine

'High hurdles' to extension as Germany mulls how to end reliance on Russian gas

The nuclear plant at Neckarwestheim, Germany, is home to one of the last three operational reactors in the country. EPA

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German nuclear plant operators have played down the idea of extending the life of the country’s last three reactors to ease the energy crisis exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

With Europe’s biggest economy under pressure to end its reliance on Russian gas and thereby weaken the Kremlin's political bargaining power, Germany’s plan to scrap nuclear for good this December has come under fresh scrutiny.

Plans to fill the gap with renewable energy, and proposed terminals to receive liquefied gas from outside Russia, are some way from completion, and gas stocks will be low by next winter when the nuclear plants lose their licence to operate.

Guenther Oettinger, a former European energy commissioner from Germany, was among politicians from the opposition Christian Democrats to express interest in reviving a decades-old debate and postponing the phase-out.

But energy companies who operate the last remaining plants said their years-long preparations to switch off the reactors meant there was little room for manoeuvre.

The northernmost of the three plants, Emsland, will have used all its remaining nuclear fuel by the end of the year and an extension would “not be feasible just like that,” a spokesman for power company RWE told The National.

He said there would be “extremely high hurdles” to any delay, both technically and legally, because politicians would have to change the law that ordered the nuclear phase-out after the Fukushima disaster in 2011.

Another operator, EnBW, did not completely rule out an extension but said it was preparing to decommission its plant at Neckarwestheim and said its long-term strategy was based on the assumption that nuclear was on the way out.

In light of the war in Ukraine, it said it was willing to offer expert advice to the government on energy use and consider what was technologically feasible, but emphasised that current legislation did not allow for an extension.

An anti-nuclear power protester impersonates Chancellor Olaf Scholz outside the chancellery in Berlin last month. Reuters

The third plant, Isar 2, is operated by PreussenElektra and similarly could not continue operations without approval from parliament.

The recent return to power of the Green party, which was born in the West German anti-nuclear protests of the 1980s, means a wholesale rethink on nuclear power is virtually out of the question.

The Greens’ coalition partners, the Social Democrats and Free Democrats, likewise see the nuclear phase-out in response to the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters as a done deal. Three plants were disconnected in December in the penultimate phase of the switch-off.

Although Economy Minister Robert Habeck, from the Greens, said he would not dismiss a short extension on ideological grounds, he sided with the operators in saying there was little prospect of making this happen in practice.

Mr Habeck cited France, Britain and Finland as examples of countries where energy prices were high this winter despite the use of nuclear power. Germany last month lost a battle with France over the EU's plans to designate atomic energy as sustainable.

The ministry says it can live without Russian gas for the rest of this winter and the coming summer, meaning the winter of 2022/23 is the point where a broader import strategy will be needed to keep the lights on.

The Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia has been suspended indefinitely - it is now uncertain whether it will ever come into operation - and there are calls from Poland to close the operational Nord Stream 1.

Part of the Nord Stream gas pipeline in Germany, which may never enter operation. AP

Although the EU says existing gas stocks and a favourable weather forecast mean it could ride out a Russian retaliation, its top energy official said the bloc would end the winter with an “exceptionally low” level of gas storage.

To add to the size of the task, ministers hope to bring forward the exit from coal power to 2030 rather than 2038, knocking out another energy source that supplied about 28 per cent of Germany’s electricity last year.

Gas imports by sea, rather than by pipeline from Russia, would require special terminals to handle liquefied natural gas which Germany does not currently possess. Chancellor Olaf Scholz told MPs at the weekend that two would be “rapidly built” on the northern coast.

But LNG is not politically uncontroversial either, because it might involve importing American natural gas obtained by fracking, a process criticised by environmental activists.

The government separately hopes to install solar panels on every suitable new roof and cover 2 per cent of Germany’s territory with wind turbines.

“The only forms of energy that don't belong to anyone, where nobody can say 'it’s all mine and I'm going to blackmail you with it', are wind and solar,” said Mr Habeck.

“They don't belong to anyone, they belong to humanity and you just have to catch them."

Updated: March 01, 2022, 11:04 AM