Europe's energy crisis knocks Germany's nuclear gamble off course

Two reactors to be kept in reserve beyond long-planned deadline of December 31

Germany is heading into winter with its last three nuclear plants scheduled for closure in December. AFP
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December 31, 2022 was a long way away once. Spooked by the Fukushima disaster in 2011, Germany gave itself more than a decade to shut down all of its nuclear power plants and phase out a form of energy that had always given it the shivers.

But with that deadline now approaching, the timing could not be worse, with Europe in the grip of an energy crisis and Germany finally forced to concede on Monday that two reactors might have to stay online past December.

The crisis has reopened a decades-old debate on nuclear power that spurred the rise of Germany’s Green party, gained traction after the Chernobyl disaster and pushed former chancellor Angela Merkel into a screeching U-turn after Fukushima.

As well as the emotional wrench for environmentalists in seeing their long-cherished ambition postponed, there are practical objections about safety, capacity and staff shortages related to keeping nuclear reactors on the grid.

However, opposition MPs have argued for weeks that Germany cannot afford to be picky about its energy sources at a time when electricity prices are rocketing and Russian gas supplies have ground to a standstill.

Economy Minister Robert Habeck, Germany’s most senior Green politician, reluctantly announced on Monday that two of the last three reactors would be kept available in reserve until the spring.

“Nuclear energy remains a high-risk technology and the radioactive waste is a burden on countless generations to come,” he said, but “if the worst comes to the worst, we can act.”

Anti-nuclear tradition

The anti-nuclear movement has been woven into German politics since the 1970s, when protesters occupied radioactive waste sites in the former West Germany and allied with peace activists who opposed the Cold War nuclear arms race.

Their point was underscored when a reactor exploded at Chernobyl in 1986, only 1,500 kilometres from Berlin, prompting worried parents to keep their children indoors for fear of radioactive fallout.

The Green party grew out of this movement and shook up the German political scene, gradually shedding its long-haired hippie image in favour of a more pragmatic brand and joining the government for the first time in 1998..

For the Greens, "this is an existential issue, it's a foundational issue. They were anti-nuclear before they really even knew about climate change," said Thomas O'Donnell, an analyst on global energy markets who works in Berlin.

Anti-nuclear protesters occupy the waste site Gorleben, in what was then West Germany, in 1980. Getty

A so-called Red-Green coalition with the Social Democrats, led by Gerhard Schroeder as chancellor, set the ball rolling on the nuclear phase-out by passing a law in 2002 that banned the construction of new reactors.

There was no hard end date at that point, but the idea was that Germany’s 19 reactors would be left to reach the natural end of their lives and nuclear energy would die a peaceful death in about 2021.

Arne Jungjohann, a political scientist and former Green party aide who was close to the early 2000s negotiations, said the 20-year timescale dismayed some activists who quit the party in frustration at the compromise.

But he said the Red-Green plan came with flexibility because operators could decide how long to keep their plants online, as long as they did not exceed an allocated quota of electricity generation.

Angela Merkel, who inherited this plan when she came to power in 2005, initially tried to water it down. Her centre-right coalition passed a law to extend the life of some German reactors until as late as 2040.

But she turned 180 degrees after the Fukushima disaster, which sent the Greens rocketing upwards in the polls, and announced that eight plants would be closed immediately and the rest by the hard deadline of December 2022.

“Fukushima has changed my stance on nuclear energy,” she said, because the fact that a disaster could happen in a highly developed country such as Japan meant nowhere appeared safe from catastrophe.

MPs backed her by 513 votes to 79 and, for the next decade, the old debate appeared settled. The Greens returned to government in 2021 and oversaw the penultimate phase of the closure, leaving three reactors online.

Then the world changed again, when Russia invaded Ukraine and slashed its energy exports to its European neighbours, sending gas prices through the roof and leaving Germany preparing for the possibility of winter blackouts.

Economy Minister Robert Habeck announced that two plants would be kept in reserve beyond December. Reuters

New debate

The crisis has already forced German politicians to cross red lines on numerous issues, with the Social Democrats turning a page on years of conciliation towards Moscow, and the Greens forced to live with a move back to coal.

Although Mr Habeck said he would not block a delay to the nuclear phase-out on ideological grounds either, officials ruled in March that preparations for the switch-off were too far advanced to call it off now.

An internal study said nuclear fuel would run out by December, there was a lack of available staff and safety checks that were waived in 2019 because of the looming end date were now long overdue.

Officials believed that generating electricity from nuclear was beside the point when most of Germany’s gas is used for heating and industry rather than keeping the lights on.

Another argument is that other European countries, already being asked to save energy this winter to bail out the likes of Germany, will lose patience if they see Berlin turning down the chance to generate more power at home.

And it is not that the energy companies are desperate to keep their plants online, having long ago accepted the way the wind was blowing and making plans accordingly.

Nonetheless, the pressure on Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s coalition to think again on nuclear has gained momentum as a difficult winter draws nearer, with the situation not helped by reduced electricity output from neighbouring France.

Mr Jungjohann said Green activists could probably accept a short extension, perhaps until next Easter, but said there was a concern that such a move would open the door to a rethink on nuclear policy more broadly.

Bavarian state premier Markus Soeder, who made a failed bid for the chancellery last year, has made no secret of this ambition and said the Isar 2 plant should stay online until at least 2024.

Opposition leaders Friedrich Merz and Markus Soeder visited a nuclear plant in Bavaria to reassure people it was safe. AFP

Mr Soeder and conservative leader Friedrich Merz made an attention-grabbing visit to Isar 2 last month, wearing all-white hazmat suits and hard hats, to illustrate their view that the plant is safe to stay online.

The door was ultimately forced open by a “stress test” of Germany’s power grid, conducted by Mr Habeck’s ministry, that reported back on Monday and concluded that blackouts could not be ruled out this winter.

But if Mr Habeck’s compromise — keeping two out of three plants in reserve, but only until April and with no orders placed for new nuclear fuel — was meant to keep both sides happy, it appeared to have the opposite effect.

Mr Merz said the reactors should stay online for the foreseeable future and that ministers should take a look at the new generation of small nuclear reactors, an idea viewed with enthusiasm in Britain and France.

Senior figures in his party muttered darkly that the one nuclear plant remaining firmly condemned was in Lower Saxony, a state where the Greens are campaigning in regional elections.

Others complained that the Greens and the camera-friendly Mr Habeck appeared to be running the show by themselves, with a senior conservative MP asking: “Where is Scholz?”.

And not all Greens were satisfied either, with one MP, Julian Pahlke, saying that none of his colleagues who supported an extension would be willing to have a radioactive waste site in their constituency.

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Did Germany do enough, given the nuclear exit has been coming for 20 years, to fill the gap that its reactors would leave? Mr Habeck openly blames the Merkel government for leaving Germany too exposed to Russian imports.

Since Mr Schroeder is now a somewhat disgraced figure, because of his close ties to Russia and Vladimir Putin, his support for shutting down nuclear is yet more damning evidence for his critics that he is complicit in the current crisis.

"The main thing they could have done is not depended on Russia," said Mr O'Donnell, who pointed the blame partly at the failure to build liquid gas terminals until this year that would have made it easier to buy from elsewhere.

"They wanted the gas cheap, so they got it from Russia. Now they're in big trouble."

Against that, the Russian invasion of Ukraine could hardly have been foreseen, and the energy crunch has been exacerbated by problems on the nuclear grid in neighbouring France.

With policies on the way to expand wind and solar energy and reduce gas consumption this winter, Mr Jungjohann takes heart from the fact that the energy transition appears to be speeding up at last.

“In normal times, these would have been fought so hard by different lobby interests, and they are basically sailing through,” he said.

“We are in a crisis mode, and there is no blueprint for these challenges that are coming up.”

Updated: September 07, 2022, 12:51 PM
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