Explainer: Could Germany continue to operate its nuclear power plants?

FRANKFURT, June 22 (Reuters) – All domestic energy sources, including nuclear power, are under consideration as Germany seeks to fuel its economy and stave off a recession seen as likely if supply in Russian gas stops completely.

Former Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged to end the use of nuclear power after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 and utility leaders prepared for the closure of the three remaining reactors by the end of 2022.

They say fuel rod supply constraints and expert staffing make it impossible to keep them open.

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The government also said in March that legal, safety and liability issues ruled out maintaining nuclear power.

Some of the liberals in the government led by the Social Democrats and the opposition Conservatives say, however, that since coal, which Germany has phased out for environmental reasons, is being reassessed, nuclear should also be reconsidered.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz has so far opposed nuclear power continuing to operate any longer.

WHY THIS NEED?

Following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, which began on February 24, Germany reduced Russia’s share of its gas imports to around 35% from 55%, but still depends on it.

While the European Union has sought to reduce its use of Russian energy, Russia has also reduced flows via the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline to Germany to 40% of its capacity. Moscow says Western sanctions hamper reparations; Europe says it’s a pretext to reduce flows.

Whatever the explanation, energy regulator Bundesnetzagentur said there will be problems keeping consumers warm and industry running. At the same time, soaring prices as markets brace for a shortage increases the risk of recession.

Along with increased use of imported and domestic coal, nuclear power could help relieve the power generation sector, 15% of which is generated by gas-fired plants.

Using less gas to heat Germany’s 41 million homes would also free up more for industry, which often needs it as a raw material.

Utilities E.ON (EONGn.DE), RWE (RWEG.DE) and EnBW (EBKG.DE) operate Isar 2, Emsland and Neckarwestheim 2 respectively – a total of 4,300 megawatts (MW) of nuclear capacity.

Three other remaining reactors closed at the end of last year when six reactors provided 12% of Germany’s electricity.

Other energy alternatives for Germany are solar and wind power, which are dependent on weather conditions and imported liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals.

The difficulty with LNG is a lack of import capacity and competition in the international market, especially since Freeport LNG, operator of one of the largest US export plants is offline following an explosion at Beginning of the month.

WHAT IS THE SYMBOLISM BEHIND GERMAN NUCLEAR?

Nuclear power plants remain unacceptable to the Green Party. It has its origins in the environmental movement of the 1970s, which cited security risks and the unresolved issue of nuclear waste.

Reaffirming the usefulness of nuclear energy would be justification for Merkel’s critics and populist voices.

WOULD IT BE LEGALLY POSSIBLE TO KEEP FACTORIES RUNNING?

“An extension of a few years would be legally permissible,” wrote Leipzig lawyer Christian Raetzke in an article published by nuclear technology association KernD, also citing the climate benefits of near-zero emissions.

Relevant legislation “is possible and could be passed quickly”, he said.

Achieving this would still be complex and would require Parliament to change existing laws, including a 2017 agreement under which utilities transferred their decommissioning funds to a public trust.

WHAT ARE THE OPERATORS SAYING?

They are against an extension for operational and economic reasons, but rely on the government’s initiative in the matter.

E.ON chief executive Leonhard Birnbaum wrote to staff to say the government had looked into nuclear and found it was not part of the solution. “We must respect this decision,” he said in the letter, which was picked up by the Rheinische Post newspaper on Wednesday.

“That’s the right question but unfortunately it’s too late (for German nuclear),” CEO Markus Krebber told a panel for the Federation of German Industry on Tuesday. Read more

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Reporting by Vera Eckert, Christoph Steitz, Markus Wacket, editing by Barbara Lewis

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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