Gas crisis exposes cracks in German coalition over nuclear extension

Liberal MPs push for reactors to stay online in move that would disappoint Green party ministers

Germany's three remaining nuclear power plants are due to be disconnected from the electricity grid this winter. AFP
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Germany’s looming winter energy crisis has exposed cracks in Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s coalition as the smallest of the three ruling parties makes a concerted push to keep nuclear power on the grid.

Senior figures from the Free Democrats (FDP) have said that no more gas should be wasted on generating electricity for the winter, when three nuclear plants due to close in December — Germany's last — could be used instead.

Gas is a scarce resource because Russia has drastically curbed supplies and members of the European Union, including Germany, have agreed to cut their gas consumption by 15 per cent to make their supplies go further.

Ministers have so far rejected a nuclear extension on technical grounds and any backsliding on the planned switch-off would be difficult to swallow for Green party ministers and many Social Democrats in the government.

But the door was pushed open slightly after the government said it would recalculate its energy needs for winter, taking into account even more dire scenarios than it had done before.

With the opposition also pushing for an extension, liberals from the FDP said they were not seeking a long-term rethink on nuclear power but that Germany could not live without it this winter.

“I know this subject is more gut-wrenching for our Green coalition partners but that cannot be decisive,” said Reinhard Houben, an economic affairs spokesman for the FDP. “We cannot afford, at the moment, to use one iota of gas for electricity generation”.

Stephan Seiter, another MP from the FDP, said that “turning gas into electricity reduces the availability of gas … that does not make sense”.

Green politicians countered that nuclear power could not replace gas at the click of a finger, especially in areas where infrastructure was set up for gas, and that the three remaining reactors would make little difference to overall supplies.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is waiting for the results of an updated energy assessment before taking sides in the debate. EPA

Party co-leader Ricarda Lang insisted her position reflected current concerns and not the “founding history” of the Greens, who grew out of anti-nuclear protests in West Germany in the 1980s that came to a head after the Chernobyl disaster.

It was a second nuclear catastrophe, at Fukushima, Japan in 2011, that prompted former chancellor Angela Merkel to announce that nuclear power would be scrapped for good by the end of 2022.

Three of Germany's last six reactors were disconnected last year and everything was in place for the remaining three to switch off this year, with just enough nuclear fuel acquired so it would all be burnt up by December.

But the debate has been revived by the energy crisis unleashed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which left Germany and many of its neighbours hurrying to bring an end to decades of reliance on Russian fossil fuels.

Officials concluded in March that untangling the nuclear thread would be too difficult at this late stage, given a lack of safety inspections and qualified nuclear technicians since the reactors appeared on their way out.

But they said last month that worst-case scenarios considered by the government in March would be updated so that plans are made for an even tighter squeeze on supplies, leaving the door open to a change of heart.

Mr Scholz has remained typically tight-lipped on the issue, with a spokeswoman saying last week that he was awaiting the results of the updated “stress test”.

Updated: August 01, 2022, 1:41 PM