Environment

Germany to keep two nuclear plants available as a backup and burn coal as it faces an energy crisis brought on by war and climate change

An aerial view shows Isar nuclear power plant, which includes the Isar 2 reactor, on August 14, 2022 in Essenbach, Germany. Isar 2 is one of the last three still operating nuclear power plants in Germany and all three were scheduled to shut down by the end of this year. However, due to the disruption in energy imports from Russia, politicians and other actors are debating extending the operational life of the plants. Some are advocating an extension until the middle of 2023, while others are pushing for longer. Approximately 80% of people polled among the general public support some kind of extension.
Alexandra Beier | Getty Images News | Getty Images

German lawmakers announced on Monday that they are going to burn coal and keep two nuclear power plants available as a last resort to get through the winter.

“The major crises — war and climate crises — have a very concrete effect,” said Robert Habeck, the federal economics and climate protection minister, in written statements published on Monday. (The statement is issued in German and CNBC used Google to translate it to English.)

The German government announced its plans to keep the Isar 2 and Neckarwestheim nuclear power plants, both of which are located in the southern part of the country, on a kind of backup status, available only if the country has no other option, as it announced the results of its second network stress test, in which German officials are calculating its energy needs based on a number of potentialities.

This second network stress test was focused on the winter season from 2022 to 2023, which is when energy demand is higher as people and businesses need to heat their homes.

The Federal Ministry of Economics and Climate Protection said in its written statement that “hourly crisis situations in the electricity system” this winter are “very unlikely, but cannot be completely ruled out at the moment.”

The war in Ukraine has affected Germany’s ability to manage its energy supplies because Germany depends heavily on natural gas exports from Russia. Gazprom, Russia’s major state-owned energy giant said on Friday that it would not re-open the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, which is the primary route of supplying Europe with natural gas, citing a need for maintenance work.

In addition to the squeeze on natural gas supplies, summer heatwaves and an ongoing drought have also disrupted energy sources.

“The summer drought has reduced the water levels in rivers and lakes, which weakens hydroelectric power in neighboring countries and also makes it difficult for us to transport coal to the power plants that we have to use due to the tight gas situation,” Habeck said.

Neckarwestheim nuclear power plant. In view of the war in Ukraine and impending gas shortages, German lawmakers are keeping two nuclear power reactors, including Neckarwestheim nuclear power plant, on call through April 2023.
Picture Alliance | Picture Alliance | Getty Images

Germany’s European neighbors are also struggling to meet their energy needs. Roughly half of France’s nuclear power reactors have been taken offline as the country struggles to maintain the aging plants, the New York Times reports.

Germany said its membership in the European Union is part of the reason for its decision. “We have enough energy in and for Germany; we are an electricity exporting country. But we are part of a European system and this year is a special year across Europe,” Habeck said.

Also, Germany has struggled to ramp up renewables, like wind and solar, and build new transmission lines.

Even as Germany opts to give itself the option to turn to the two southern nuclear power plants, Germany is not changing its longer-term goal to shut down all nuclear power in the country. The announcement is very much a stop-gap for the country, similar to the proposal California is currently pursuing to keep its last operating nuclear power reactor, Diablo Canyon, online.

“Nuclear power is and will remain a high-risk technology, and the highly radioactive waste will burden tens of generations to come. You can’t play with nuclear power,” Habeck said in the statement. ”A blanket lifetime extension would therefore not be justifiable with regard to the safety status of the nuclear power plants. With the operational reserve, we take into account the risks of nuclear technology and the special situation in winter 22/23. This is how we can act if the worst comes to the worst.”

While Germany has a clear aversion to nuclear energy, nuclear energy is historically safer than burning fossil fuels. Brown coal, coal and oil all have vastly more deaths per unit of energy generated than nuclear energy.

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