As the risk of energy shortages and recession rise in Germany, the government is looking for solutions to the country’s supply crunch. Before it closed half of its six remaining nuclear units on the last day of 2021, there was some talk of temporarily keeping the units open in order to meet demand, but the government was unable or unwilling to change course so quickly.
This time, it is much harder to make the same excuse. The last three nuclear units in the country, Emsland, Isar, and Neckarwestheim, are set to close at the end of this year. One excuse made for the last three units to close was that it would be too challenging to secure a fuel supply for the reactors so quickly, because there are no contracts in place for fuel delivery following the scheduled shutdowns.
But this time there certainly is time to secure fuel supplies to keep the plants running before the scheduled shut down at the end of the year, so no such excuse can be made and reasonably believed. The operators of Isar II, the remaining unit at the Isar Nuclear Power Plant in Lower Bavaria, have said as much.
A spokesperson for the plant told the German newspaper Bild last month that, “As soon as the government signals to us that Isar II is needed, we will try everything to enable safe continued operation”[Translated from German].
The neoliberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), the smallest party in Germany’s current coalition government, supports keeping the country’s nuclear reactors open during this period of energy turmoil.
Michael Kruse, an FDP member of the German Parliament, suggested a summit be held with operators, suppliers, and politicians to work out the details that a plan to keep the country’s reactors would entail. He also told Bild that “If the operators say that it is possible, we have to discuss the topic again—especially when it is obviously wrong that the German power plants cannot continue due to missing fuel rods. In the current situation, no options must be ruled out. On the contrary: we have to look for solutions and alternatives. And nuclear power can be one” [Translated from German].
Finance Minister Christian Lindner of the FDP said in June that the country was verging on “very serious economic crisis,” and advocated for the exploration of all avenues to ameliorate the energy crisis.
But, FDP support alone will not be enough to sway the current government, and its coalition partners will be much harder to win over, especially the Green party who have been the historical enemies of nuclear energy in the country.
In an interview with Handelsblatt last month, French European Union Commissioner, Thierry Breton entreated Germany to keep its reactors open as a show of EU solidarity in the face of Russian weaponization of energy issues. Breton said that, “It is extremely important to let the three German nuclear power plants that are still in operation run longer.”
In July, the German Parliament voted to reopen many of the country’s previously shuttered coal-fired power plants. This makes keeping the nuclear units online less likely, but has also been a hard pill to swallow for many environmentalists in the current government, who recognize that it will make it much harder for the country to hit its climate targets or successfully phase out coal by 2030 as it currently plans to do.
Another thing to note is that the European Parliament voted in July to accept a proposal that would label nuclear and gas investments as “climate-friendly.” The proposal will become EU law unless a supermajority of member states votes to veto it. This new taxonomy might provide political cover for some German officials who would like to keep the plants running, but need justification beyond the already pressing energy crisis.
Prime Minister Scholz is under significant pressure from the countries European Union partners to extend the lives of the nuclear plants in order to pose less burden on EU partner’s energy resources during what is projected to be a tough winter for energy supplies, but it remains unclear how successful those entreaties and the energy realities which are growing increasingly clear will be in the end.
This pressure has been mounting, culminating in a leak to the media that the government was considering keeping these plants open. The government denied the leak, claiming that they had as of yet made no decision pending stress tests on the plants, but the type of discussion that is now being had still shows an encouraging shift toward considering the possibility. We will see in the coming days what comes of it.
Of course, on the heels of more than a decade of closing the country’s nuclear power plants due to Energiewende, the country’s energy transition policy, even if a reversal were achieved, the change would come far too late for the vast majority of the country’s reactors, as all but three of the original seventeen reactors have already been shuttered by Energiewende. Nonetheless, any glimmer of a reversal is a welcome sign to of a change in attitude toward ensuring energy reliability in the country.
This piece was produced by Paige Lambermont, a Policy Associate at IER