In the event of power shortages, Federal Minister of Economics Robert Habeck wants to be able to use two of the three remaining German nuclear power plants until April. The Greens politician would like to keep Isar 2 in Bavaria and Neckarwestheim in Baden-Württemberg in reserve until mid-April 2023.
In the course of the nuclear phase-out, all German nuclear power plants should have been finally shut down at the end of the year - because of the energy crisis triggered by Russia, Habeck is now bringing a possible short extension into play.
The minister referred to the second power grid stress test, the results of which he presented on Monday in Berlin. This came to the conclusion "that crisis situations in the electricity system by the hour in the winter of 22/23 are very unlikely, but cannot be completely ruled out at the moment," said a statement from his ministry.
"We're not in a situation where we can hope for the best, we have to expect the worst," said Habeck. It cannot be ruled out that nuclear power plants could make a contribution to the tense situation. This is a debate that traditionally causes high political waves in Germany, binds many emotions and has occupied the republic for a long time, he said about the operation of nuclear power plants.
What was examined in the stress test
During the stress test, three scenarios with different levels of difficulty were run through. For example, it was about assumptions about the level of the rivers that supply the coal-fired power plants, which also generate electricity. Various assumptions about the availability of French nuclear power plants were also run through.
There were two core questions: Is there enough electricity available under difficult conditions, both in Germany and in neighboring European countries? And will the power grid remain stable under these conditions?
power plants in reserve
According to Habeck, the power plants in reserve would not consume any nuclear fuel and would not produce any electricity either. The staff for a possible restart would be kept ready. It takes about a week to connect a reserve power plant to the grid, Habeck said. If the power plants are used, they would probably run until mid-April. So there shouldn't be a constant on and off.
The energy supplier Eon now wants to examine technically and organizationally how reserve operation at its power plant in Bavaria could work. In terms of their technical design, nuclear power plants are not reserve power plants that can be switched on and off variably. EnBW also wants to see how Habeck's proposal could be implemented.
Why the third nuclear power plant should not be in reserve
The Emsland nuclear power plant in Lower Saxony could make a certain contribution, said Habeck. "But this contribution is too small compared to the two southern German power plants." The chairman of the transmission system operator 50 Hertz, Stefan Kapferer, explained for the four transmission system operators: "We proposed to keep all three nuclear power plants running, but the minister correctly explained that the function of the two southern German power plants is significantly different than the power plant in Lingen." The network operators see it that way too.
How it goes on
According to Habeck, in order for his plan to be implemented, changes to the law would be necessary, presumably to the law on securing the energy supply. On this basis, further questions such as liability and nuclear law would then be clarified.
The issue of safety is particularly important here. In Europe, nuclear power plants actually have to undergo extensive safety inspections every ten years. In the case of German nuclear power plants, that was thirteen years ago. In the course of the nuclear phase-out in 2011, the operators were released from the control requirement because it was clear that the nuclear power plants were to be shut down at the end of 2022.
Such a comprehensive "periodic security check" is not feasible in the reserve, said Habeck. The current exception must therefore be extended - but only for this one winter. An extension of the reserve beyond mid-April or a revival of the reserve in the winter of 2023/2024 is "impossible due to the safety status of the nuclear power plants and the fundamental considerations regarding the risks of nuclear power," writes the Ministry of Economic Affairs in a paper. Habeck said the government has a mandate to secure energy supplies, which is why his proposal is constitutional.
Habeck: No turning away from nuclear phase-out
Habeck does not want his plans to be seen as a departure from the German nuclear phase-out. "There will be no extension of the term beyond this winter (beyond) in this legislative period," he emphasized. "There will be no loading of nuclear power plants with new fuel elements. There will be no decision to build new nuclear power plants." This is also absurd because nuclear power is "part of the problem".
Criticism from Union and FDP, encouragement from SPD and Greens
Previously, not only the opposition Union, but also the FDP, which is part of the government, had campaigned for the continued operation of the nuclear power plants. The FDP is dissatisfied with the fact that only two out of three possible nuclear power plants are to be held in reserve. "It's a matter of common sense to enable every climate-neutral kilowatt hour now, because the gas-fired power plants drive up prices," wrote FDP Vice Johannes Vogel on Twitter. Vogel continues: "Habeck's emergency reserve is a step, but also appears as a political emergency exit. The FDP stays tuned: for the continued operation of the 3 nuclear power plants!"
However, support came from the coalition partner SPD. Group Vice President Matthias Miersch welcomed the stress test result and Habeck's recommendation as "a good basis for fact-based and careful advice". "I would also like to see the same from those who are already clamoring for a runtime extension before the results are announced," said Miersch. "The stress test shows: Atom is not the general solution that many people want."
The two chairmen of Habeck's Greens parliamentary group, Britta Haßelmann and Katharina Dröge, supported the minister. "Since we have a tense winter ahead of us, the Economics Minister proposes to put two nuclear power plants in reserve for the winter months as a backup. This means that they will go off the grid as planned at the end of the year and will only be used in an emergency, by decision of the Bundestag reactivated", explained the two politicians. The parliamentary group will now discuss the proposal intensively.
The top of the Union faction criticized the decision of the federal government as a fatal mistake and politically motivated. "In this crisis, these three nuclear power plants could deliver energy and electricity for Germany safely, reliably and affordably. And they should do so for at least the next two winters," said Jens Spahn (CDU), Vice President of the Union faction.
Outrage among environmental groups
Environmental groups reacted with outrage. One accusation was that Habeck was canceling the consensus on the nuclear phase-out. "Keeping nuclear power plants available beyond December 31st is unacceptable and prevents the necessary energy transition - especially in southern Germany," said Martin Kaiser, Managing Director of Greenpeace Germany. "Despite the energy supply crisis, von Habeck is irresponsible in taking a significant safety risk with the last and old nuclear power plants."