Status: 07/29/2022 3:02 p.m.
The extension of AKW durations is no longer excluded. How would that be technically possible? What does this mean for security? And are there enough staff for that? The most important questions and answers.
Should and can the last three German batteries continue to function?
Germany’s neighbor Belgium has already postponed phasing out nuclear energy for ten years because of the Russian war in Ukraine. Within the federal government, the FDP in particular is open to this. But even the Greens no longer exclude the temporary continuation of exploitation. In a real emergency, such as when hospitals can no longer function, it has to be talked about, said Bundestag Vice President Katrin Göring-Eckardt on “Anne Will”.
The Green-led Economy Ministry is subjecting the power supply to a stricter stress test. He also looks to France, where about half of nuclear power plants were off-grid due to faults or maintenance, so reactors were providing less electricity than usual. There is even a suggestion from Bavaria to start nuclear power plants that have already been closed – because the state is particularly under pressure.
What are nuclear power plants and how much electricity do they produce?
There are currently three nuclear power plants connected to the grid: Emsland in Lower Saxony, Isar 2 in Bavaria and Neckarwestheim 2 in Baden-Württemberg. According to current law, the three reactors must be shut down by December 31, 2022 at the latest. According to the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems, they together generated around 6.4% of Germany’s electricity this year. (as of July 26, 10:04 a.m.).
During the same period, natural gas contributed 10.1% to the electricity mix, while renewables held the largest share with 51.6%. Electricity produced by nuclear power this year could power nearly 4.5 million four-person households for one year at average consumption.
What is the point if the heat is actually used for heating?
Natural gas, which threatens to become scarce, is essentially used for heating. But it also contributes about 10% of electricity production in Germany. If you depended on nuclear energy longer, you could use more gas for heating. Nuclear engineer Thomas Walter Tromm of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) assumes that the nuclear energy produced since the beginning of the year can replace enough natural gas to heat around three million single-family homes a year. However, it is disputed how much electricity nuclear power plants could still supply with their old fuel rods.
Is an extension technically and legally possible?
From a purely technical point of view, this is only possible from an expert point of view if new fuel elements are available by next summer. Until then, a so-called stretching operation could be carried out. Then the nuclear power plants would be operated at reduced power for a few months so that the fuel rods would last longer. However, this does not give you more power, the output is only stretched over a longer period of time. The Ministries of Economy and the Environment are assuming that the new fuel elements would not be available for a year at the earliest.
According to a test report from the ministries in March, the additional electricity could only be produced from autumn 2023. It is also questionable whether there are enough spare parts for the operation and the systems of security. In order to make an extension legally possible, the Bundestag would have to amend the Atomic Energy Act. Because at the end of the year, all operating licenses for nuclear power plants in Germany will expire. According to the case law of the Court of Justice of the European Communities, a new environmental impact assessment may be necessary if the lifespan is extended, and the risk should also be reassessed.
What about security?
The safety of nuclear power plants in Germany must be thoroughly checked every ten years. However, the last date in 2019 was canceled because the reactors were due to be shut down in 2022 anyway. “If operation continued after January 1, 2023, the last safety check would be 13 years old, and a new one would be mandatory” , write the ministries. Such a test could take years. Nevertheless, all three systems are at a high level in terms of security. TÜV Süd also tested the Isar 2 plant and expressed no concerns.
Environmental organizations such as the Bund Naturschutz (BUND) and Greenpeace warn against further delaying the nuclear phase-out and point to incalculable security risks.
What are the critics saying?
The Federation for the Environment and Nature Conservation in Germany (BUND) presented a study on Thursday which categorically rejects the continued operation of nuclear power plants. The benefits are disproportionate to the risks and costs. The last safety checks carried out in 2009 were based on a set of rules from the early 1980s, in which the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear accidents were not even taken into account.
However, a legal opinion commissioned by Greenpeace Germany accuses TÜV Süd of bias. A report by TÜV Süd on behalf of the Bavarian Ministry of the Environment, which had expressed no reservations about the continued operation, was criticized. Specifically, a Hamburg law firm accuses TÜV Süd of having “negligently argued over a commissioned work” which “cannot be recognized as a serious evaluation”. One also gets the impression that the TÜV ignores the applicable nuclear law. The TÜV rating was “apparently intended to be used as a weapon in the current discussion of life extension in the political arena”, he said. It is suspected “that a courtesy report was prepared here”, according to the lawyers. The Bavarian Ministry of the Environment dismissed the charge.
Can you find enough workers for nuclear power plants?
Plant operators have also prepared themselves in terms of personnel for the end of 2022. If the batteries are to operate longer, they will need additional well-trained employees. Ministries assume that these can only be achieved with financial incentives. Other experts, on the other hand, believe that the systems could probably continue to operate with the personnel that were intended for dismantling. Operators have another problem: they have received compensation for phasing out nuclear power. It is unclear whether they will be allowed to keep it in full if the piles will continue to operate for months.
What alternative is there?
Instead of operating nuclear power stations longer, one could also rely more heavily on coal again. Proponents of nuclear energy therefore argue, among other things, for climate protection: over the entire life cycle, nuclear power plants are responsible for far fewer greenhouse gas emissions than, for example, gas or coal-fired power plants. However, this ignores the fact that there is still no solution to safely store highly radioactive and hazardous nuclear waste in Germany for hundreds or thousands of years.
What are other EU countries saying about it?
According to a study by the dpa news agency, several EU countries are pushing for the use of nuclear energy in Germany beyond December 31. Given the gas crisis, calls are also being made to check whether the last reactors withdrawn from the network should be restarted. From the point of view of countries such as Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and France, the continued operation of German nuclear power plants could make a significant contribution to saving gas, given that around 15% of German electricity was still produced by gas-fired power stations. If Russia cut off all gas supplies to the EU, more reserves would be available for domestic and industrial heating.
The background is the EU emergency plan for the gas crisis. It plans to reduce national gas consumption by 15% from August to March. This also supports those who are in favor of longer terms of office, for example in the CDU, CSU and FDP.
Why are the Bavarians in particular campaigning for continued exploitation?
There are hardly any wind farms in southern Germany – and their construction is progressing slowly. At the same time, there are no high-voltage lines that could efficiently transport electricity from the north. At the same time, only a few coal-fired power plants in Bavaria could take over power generation. According to Bavarian Economics Minister Hubert Aiwanger (free voters), the Isar 2 nuclear power plant alone already covers 15% of Bavaria’s electricity needs.
The risk of winter bottlenecks is therefore greater in Bavaria than in the other Länder, argues the leader of the Greens’ parliamentary group, Ludwig Hartmann. In extreme cases, one has to think about the continued operation of individual nuclear power plants – if the power supply and grid stability are in danger, he told “Augsburger Allgemeine”. Aiwanger would also like to restart reactors that have already been shut down.
According to the Ministry of Economic Affairs, these would then have to go through the entire approval process with numerous tests and, in some cases, also be retrofitted. “The restart of the three nuclear power plants that were shut down on December 31, 2021 is out of the question, if only because of the license situation (expired operating permit), which cannot be legally changed with a legal certainty,” the trial report says.