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Germany Slow On Nuclear as Winter Looms

Have they finally made a decision?

Last week, a proposal to keep two of the country’s three reactors on standby until spring was voted down, making it seem as though the issue was finally settled. But then, in yet another about face, Prime Minister Olaf Sholz announced that all three reactors would be kept open until April of 2023. He ordered that a legal basis for doing so be created. It looks as though the other parties in his governing coalition, including the Green Party, will go along with it. Some members of the Green Party, however, including party co-leader Ricarda Lang, have argued that only two of the three reactors are absolutely necessary for grid stability. 

As I have written here before, Germany has been phasing out its nuclear reactors since 2011. As a result, the country has gone from 17 operating reactors, down to just 3 in just over a decade, with plans to close those remaining units in December. Last December, when energy prices in general were already rising, and it was clear tensions in Ukraine were mounting (with obvious implications for Russian gas supplies to Europe), the German government went ahead with another 3 reactor closures. 

In August, it was leaked to the media that the Government was considering a bid to keep the reactors open in the face of the energy crisis. This move would have made sense, considering that energy costs in the country had already risen steeply, and draconian energy saving measures were being considered for the winter ahead. 

 The situation got so bad that public opinion on nuclear power shifted dramatically as those costs rose. This is notable because the German public has historically been in staunch opposition to nuclear power, especially since Fukushima; but it would appear that an energy crunch has significant power to change hearts and minds in a situation like this.

All along, the companies that manage the plants have assured the government that they would be able to continue operations of the units if the need arose. 

But for the longest time, the government resisted taking this obvious option. At first, they were adamant that the closure of the units at the end of the year was unavoidable. Once they realized that additional grid capacity was of nearly incalculable value going into this winter, they came up with another solution—to leave two of the units in reserve until April in case the capacity was needed. This plan was preposterous, because the capacity was already needed. Wholesale electricity prices in Germany had risen from an average of €82.81 per megawatt-hour in July of 2021 to €469.35 per megawatt-hour in August of 2022. That is a 466% increase year over year in the cost of electricity. 

A new ordinance came into effect in September setting new energy savings requirements, and leaving room for further measures to be taken. Most of the savings measures apply to public buildings so far, but expansion of the rules has been left open, and there are already limitations on the usage of lights on things like advertisements, and requirements for landlords and energy providers to discuss energy saving members with tenants and customers. 

In view of all of this, the move to keep all three reactors open is the only logical course. The operators of some of the plants have requested a formal legal framework for their continued operation be worked out sooner rather than later to ensure that they are able to maintain operations, but provided that this occurs, it currently looks as though the reactors will be able to be kept online.

Paige Lambermont is a Catalyst Policy Fellow and Policy Associate at the Institute for Energy Research. In her role, she writes about the impacts of government policy on energy markets. She has a bachelor’s degree in political science from American University and is from Butler, Pennsylvania.
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