Energy: nuclear power only in an emergency - what do Habeck's plans mean?

Hardly anyone expected this: Federal Economics Minister Robert Habeck does not want to take the last German nuclear power plants off the grid forever as planned at the end of the year.

Energy: nuclear power only in an emergency - what do Habeck's plans mean?

Hardly anyone expected this: Federal Economics Minister Robert Habeck does not want to take the last German nuclear power plants off the grid forever as planned at the end of the year. But they shouldn't just keep going. Instead, the Green politician wants to move two of the three remaining nuclear power plants to a reserve. The concept raises many questions.

What is this new reserve supposed to be?

The Economics Ministry calls them "operational reserves". If necessary, the Isar 2 power plants in Bavaria and Neckarwestheim in Baden-Württemberg should make an additional contribution to the power grid in winter. New fuel rods should not be used for this. The two power plants should be available by mid-April. After that it should be over for them too. For the winter of 2023/24, the Ministry no longer considers such an operational reserve to be necessary.

When and under what circumstances would the reserve be used?

Several measures are intended to ensure that there is always enough electricity, such as better use of power plants and power lines. Only if all of this is not enough to avert a supply crisis should the two nuclear power plants be started up again. The ministry speaks of an "emergency operation" to "defend a concrete threat to security of supply".

The underlying scenarios assume, among other things, that hard coal-fired power plants can then no longer produce as much electricity because they can no longer get enough fuel due to persistent low water. It is also assumed that many other power plants in Germany and France are not available. At the same time, heavy use of fan heaters and an extremely high gas price are assumed for the model.

Would there still be enough staff for a reserve?

For many years it has been clear that the end of 2022 is actually the end. Companies have been preparing for this for a long time. At the end of July, the CEO of the energy group EnBW, Frank Mastiaux, said that there were plans for retraining or early retirement for the more than 700 employees in active power plant operation. EnBW is the operator of the Neckarwestheim nuclear power plant. EnBW and Eon, the operator of Isar 2, now also want to check whether reserve operation is "organizationally" feasible. The question of the staff is also likely to be hidden behind the wording.

How much does reserve operation cost?

The ministry calls the costs for the provision of personnel and technology "manageable", without naming an exact sum. These costs are to be reimbursed to the operators by the state. Consumers should not be burdened with this. Should a nuclear power plant go online again, any "accidental profits" - meaning high profits resulting from very high market prices for electricity as a result of the gas crisis - are to be "skimmed off" as with other power plants. The money is to be used to finance the so-called electricity price brake, which is intended to cap the electricity price for basic consumption.

How about security?

According to the Atomic Energy Act, a periodic safety review (PSÜ), in which the nuclear power plants are intensively examined over many months, must usually be carried out every ten years. The last PSÜ for the three reactors was in 2009. The test, which was actually scheduled for 2019, was suspended in view of the switch-off date on December 31, 2022.

Even before the results of the stress test were announced, the Federal Office for the Safety of Nuclear Waste Management pointed out that the reactors could continue to run "with unrecognized deficits" if they were extended. State and society would have to decide "whether they want to bear the risks of a catastrophic accident for the benefit of energy production," according to the Federal Office.

When asked on Tuesday, the Society for Plant and Reactor Safety (GRS) assumed that the nuclear power plants would be “safe” or “safe enough” beyond the end of 2022. Because in addition to a PSR, nuclear power plant operators would have to "continuously check all safety-related facilities", explains the technical-scientific GRS managing director Uwe Stoll. Technical facilities would be checked weekly, annually or at longer intervals. According to Stoll, a PSR is not primarily used to identify possible safety-related damage, but rather to compare the current state of a plant with the current state of science and technology.

Why shouldn't the Emsland nuclear power plant be part of the reserve?

Habeck argues that there are fewer alternative nuclear power plants in southern Germany than in the north. His ministry points out that less electricity is produced from renewable energy sources such as wind and sun in the south, but that important industrial centers there have a great need. There is also a lack of network connections in Bavaria. In northern Germany, on the other hand, floating oil power plant ships should be used to cover possible gaps.

The network operators who carried out the stress test on behalf of the ministry drew different conclusions than Habeck. They had spoken out in favor of letting all three remaining nuclear power plants continue to run. The deputy leader of the Union parliamentary group, Jens Spahn (CDU), brought up the fact that the Emsland nuclear power plant should not be included in the reserve in connection with the state elections in Lower Saxony on October 9th. Green leader Ricarda Lang disagreed - in the ARD "Mittagsmagazin" she argued that security of supply was particularly problematic in southern Germany.

Is the reserve enough?

no According to the stress test of the power grid operators, the three remaining German nuclear power plants could only make a limited contribution if they continued to operate in critical situations in the power grid - and only two of these should go into reserve.

In order to stabilize the power grid, the three power plants would only reduce the need for balancing power plants abroad by 0.5 gigawatts in a scenario called "very critical", the transmission system operators reported on Monday in Berlin. Even then, there would still be a requirement abroad of 4.6 gigawatts. Such balancing power plants can provide the German market with short-term electricity to compensate for grid bottlenecks.

The ministry emphasizes that if all three nuclear power plants were to burn out their fuel elements completely, only minimally less electricity would be generated in gas-fired power plants. The amount in Germany is 0.9 terawatt hours, which corresponds to about one per thousand of German gas consumption.

That is why Habeck continues to call for energy saving. He also wants to further remove obstacles to the greater use of renewable energies, and his house sent proposals to the other ministries on Tuesday.

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