Germany to Keep Last Three Nuclear-Power Plants Running in Policy U-Turn
Move prompted by the mounting economic war with Russia marks the first departure from a two-decade policy to abandon nuclear energy
The Isar nuclear-power plant in Essenbach, Germany, is one of the last nuclear plants still operating in the country. PHOTO: ALEXANDRA BEIER/GETTY IMAGES
Western leaders are preparing for the possibility that Russian natural gas flows through the key Nord Stream pipeline may never return to full levels. WSJ’s Shelby Holliday explains what an energy crisis could look like in Europe, and how it might ripple through the world. Illustration: David Fang
Updated Aug. 16, 2022 12:40 pm ET
BERLIN—Germany plans to postpone the closure of the country’s last three nuclear power plants as it braces for a possible shortage of energy this winter after Russia throttled gas supplies to the country, said German government officials.
While temporary, the move would mark the first departure from a policy initiated in the early 2000s to phase out nuclear energy in Germany and which had over time become enshrined in political consensus.
The decision has yet to be formally adopted by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s cabinet and would likely require a vote in Parliament. Some details are still under discussion, three senior government officials said. A cabinet decision would also need to wait on the outcome of an assessment of Germany’s energy needs that will be concluded in the coming weeks but which the officials said was a foregone conclusion.
Still, while a formal decision could be weeks off, the government believes two key conditions allowing a temporary extension of the life of the three remaining plants, now expected to close on Dec. 31, have been met: Germany is facing a likely shortage of gas and letting the reactors operate longer poses no safety concern, the officials said.
“The reactors are safe until Dec. 31, and obviously they will remain safe also after Dec. 31,” a senior official said.
The plan underlines how deeply Moscow’s attack on Ukraine has scrambled politics in Europe, and particularly in Germany, which long enjoyed close economic relations with Russia and whose economy had grown highly dependent on Russian natural-gas supplies.
Shortly after the invasion, Mr. Scholz moved to ramp up military spending and deliver arms to Ukraine, breaking with years of pacifism and a legal ban on the delivery of offensive weapons in conflict zones. The nuclear move, while limited and temporary, would break a third long-held taboo in German politics.
Mr. Scholz hinted at the decision last week, saying for the first time that it could make sense to keep Germany’s last three nuclear reactors online.
A spokeswoman for the Economy Ministry, which oversees energy, denied that the government had made a decision on extending the life of the plants, adding that it would depend on the findings of the continuing assessment of Germany’s power needs.
Extending the life of the three plants beyond their current closing date is no panacea for Germany’s looming energy bottleneck this winter. The country is mainly missing natural gas, which is used primarily for heating and manufacturing.
Yet by allowing the plants, which together account for around 6% of the country’s electricity production, to stay online, Berlin would remove the need to replace them with gas- or coal-powered plants, allowing gas to be used in areas where it can’t be replaced by other fuels.
Mothballed coal plants have already been brought back online to prevent energy blackouts after Russia slashed gas supplies in June, a decision that will complicate Berlin’s plans to cut greenhouse-gas emissions and reduce air pollution.
The government has also drafted two executive orders outlining measures to reduce gas and power consumption in the country over the next two years, including by lowering the temperature in public buildings. The country’s energy regulator estimates that gas consumption will need to be cut by 20% if Germany is to avoid a gas shortfall this winter and next.
It is unclear for how long the reactors will continue to operate past the December deadline. The three officials said the extension would only be for a few months. Leading figures in the Free Democratic party, the government’s third coalition partner, have said the plant should run into 2024.
Several officials said that the extension would only affect the three plants that still operate today and that Berlin wasn’t considering reopening plants decommissioned earlier, including three that were shut down last winter.
The nuclear extension is fraught with technical, legal and political hurdles. Laws may need to be amended to allow for the reactors to remain online and obtain fresh fuel rods. Complex certification as well as insurance and nuclear-waste disposal procedures could be required.
It is also politically sensitive. The nuclear phaseout was initiated by the Social Democrats and Greens, the leading parties in the current coalition, and has become part of the parties’ identities, particularly for the Greens, a party that was born out of the antinuclear movement.
Leading Green politicians have already accepted a short extension of the nuclear-power generation. Ludwig Hartmann, the Greens’ parliamentary floor leader in the state of Bavaria, said that the life of reactors could be prolonged for a “few months” if the region faced the risk of power shortages.
The opposition conservatives, the party of former Chancellor Angela Merkel, who greatly accelerated the phasing-out of nuclear energy following the Fukushima disaster in 2011, now also favors extending the plants’ lifespan.
“Not everyone [who keeps using nuclear energy] in the world is stupider than us,” Friedrich Merz, chairman of the center-right Christian Democratic Union, said in a recent radio interview.
While the phaseout has for years enjoyed overwhelming popular support, a recent survey by the Forsa Institut polling group showed three quarters of Germans wanted the planned reactor closures to be postponed. Forsa said it had recorded a gradual shift in public opinion in favor of keeping the plants online since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
The last three German nuclear power plants are Isar 2 in the southern state of Bavaria, Neckarwestheim 2 in Baden-Wurttemberg and Emsland in Lower Saxony, which are operated by E.On SE, EnBW AG, and RWE AG respectively.
A spokesman for EnBW said the company would be willing to discuss an extension of the operation of its reactor if the government asked for it. A spokeswoman for Preussen Elektra, the E.On subsidiary that runs its last nuclear plant, refused to comment. RWE didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Germany has been facing pressure from its European allies, including the European Union’s executive body, to extend the operation of its last reactors as part of the bloc’s efforts to manage the looming energy crisis.
The ministry for the economy and the environment, headed by Robert Habeck of the Green Party, commissioned an initial stress-test earlier this year, which found that the nuclear reactors wouldn’t help solve a potential energy crisis.
After Russia slashed gas exports to Germany by 80% last month, Mr. Habeck ordered a second, broader analysis that would take into account a possible shortage of gas this winter.
Some environmental groups have already announced that they would take legal action against a decision to postpone the plant closure.
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