Germany stands by nuclear phase-out despite Russian energy crunch

Government rejects calls from opposition and EU commissioner to extend life of last three reactors

Germany's last remaining nuclear reactors have enough fuel until their planned December cut-off date. AFP
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Germany has maintained it will switch off its last three nuclear reactors by the end of the year despite a senior EU official urging the bloc’s biggest economy to rethink.

Opposition MPs plan to force a vote this week to test the resolve of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s coalition to complete the decade-long phase-out of nuclear power, despite growing fears that energy will run short this winter.

Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck recently declared a “gas crisis” and invoked the penultimate phase of Germany’s emergency energy plans after Russia curbed supplies through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline.

The idea of a short reprieve for nuclear power was rejected in March because the December switch-off has been planned for too long for power companies to now change course.

But the opposition conservatives said these technical hurdles could be overcome if the political will was there, and said the nuclear plants should be kept alive — as condemned coal plants already have been — to prevent shortages.

Thierry Breton, a member of the European Commission responsible for the EU’s single market, told business newspaper Handelsblatt that the last three German reactors should be kept online “at least for a few months”.

Mr Breton, who like his home country France is a champion of nuclear power, said it was “extremely important” for Germany to keep nuclear power on the grid.

However, the German government said its opinion had not changed and that the comparison with coal was wrong because nuclear power is used only to generate electricity.

“Nuclear plants don’t help to heat homes, whereas coal plants do,” an Economy Ministry spokeswoman said.

Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck holds up a graph showing potential gas shortages in winter. EPA

Within the three-party government, Mr Scholz’s Social Democrats and Mr Habeck’s Greens are longstanding advocates of the nuclear phase-out, meaning there is little prospect of a wholesale rethink.

Three more reactors were switched off at the end of last year in what Green ministers hailed as an end to radioactive waste and "highly problematic technology".

But some MPs from Mr Scholz’s third coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), have shown more interest in the idea of an extension, and one recent poll showed most of the party’s voters favouring the idea.

“We can’t afford to be picky with energy,” said Nico Tippelt, an MP from the FDP. “We need to extend the power plant contracts so that energy prices don’t go further through the roof.”

The opposition Christian Democrats (CDU) are expected to unveil an energy plan this week which will include a call for nuclear plants to stay online past December.

Although it was a CDU-led government under former chancellor Angela Merkel that set the timetable for the nuclear phase-out after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, the party now says a short-term extension is needed.

Jens Spahn, a former CDU minister and member of its leadership ranks, said the party would seek a vote this week to force anti-nuclear MPs to put their name to the phase-out.

Mr Habeck has said he would not reject an extension on ideological grounds but that officials found the idea impractical.

This was partly because operators had bought exactly enough nuclear fuel to last until December, meaning any extension into 2023 would mean producing less electricity now and making no overall gain.

Officials also raised concerns about the safety certificates of the plants, which were last updated in 2009, and possible staff shortages because not many people have been trained in a seemingly dead-end career path in recent years.

Updated: July 05, 2022, 2:39 PM
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