Breaking Taboo, Germany Extends Life of 2 Nuclear Reactors

BERLIN — Germany will keep two of its three remaining nuclear power plants operational as an emergency reserve for its electricity supply, its energy minister announced on Monday, delaying the country’s plans to become the first industrial power to go nuclear-free for its energy.

The latest decision is aimed at giving the government more room to cushion the blow of a deepening energy crisis spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to which the European Union has responded with a string of sanctions against Moscow. Soaring energy costs have thrown the bloc into an economic tailspin — especially Germany, Europe’s largest economy.

Many governments are now pushing through special measures to ease the impact on their citizens and are scrambling to buy liquid natural gas, as prices rise steeply. Germany is no exception. It has already embarked on broad conservation measures, setting guidelines for heating and cooling public offices and switching the lights off landmarks at 10 p.m., and it has pivoted sharply from its dependency on Russian gas.

But the decision to extend the life of it nuclear reactors is one of the most symbolic, if not consequential, the government has taken, breaking a political taboo as it tries to show that it is doing all it can to alleviate the crisis.The government said it made the decision based on a series of stress tests playing out worst-case energy scenarios.

“We are steeling ourselves for a case that is possible, but not foreseeable,” Robert Habeck, the minister of energy and economy, of the extension plan, said at a news conference.“This was a balancing decision, because this a high-risk technology that should have stopped at end of the year. But it’s both a defensible and necessary choice.”

Nuclear power has long been an emotional and divisive subject in Germany. The opposition to it has been shaped by an antinuclear protest movement begun in Germany during the Cold War as well as the long shadow cast by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in what is now Ukraine and was then part of the Soviet Union.

Robert Habeck, a leading Green Party member and Germany’s minister of energy and economy, passing Greenpeace activists on Monday. The banner reads: “Nuclear power? Not one day longer!”Credit…Michele Tantussi/Reuters

The former chancellor, Angela Merkel, ultimately agreed to move forward with Germany’s “nuclear exit” in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011. The last nuclear plants are set to shut down at the end of December 2022.

Conservatives reopened debate over nuclear power this summer, arguing the current energy crisis necessitated a new lease on life for the plants.

In making the announcement, Mr. Habeck, a leading member of tthe Green Party, whose roots were in the antinuclear movement, now finds himself in the awkward position of being the face of the decision to extend Germany’s use of nuclear power. A crowd of protesters shouted at him as he arrived on Monday at the government press center to make the announcement.

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“It’s a debate that traditionally makes strong political waves in Germany, that a lot of emotion is attached to,” Mr. Habeck said. “It has occupied the republic for a long time and is now about to occupy the republic again. My task in this situation is to get clear of it. We have to make the right decision as a government and I have to make the right decision as the minister responsible for supply security in Germany.”

For weeks, Mr. Habeck and Chancellor Olaf Scholz resisted the push to keep nuclear plants on line, but finally agreed they would make their final decision based on the stress tests. If the results showed scenarios where nuclear power would help ease the crisis, they agreed to keep the plants on past the shutdown date.

On Monday, the tests results said that while crisis situations in the power grid were “unlikely in winter 22/23, they cannot be completely ruled out.” The energy ministry said that starting in January 2023, the reactors shouldbe relied on only in emergency conditions.

Drought across Europe and nuclear power shortages in France this summer were a stark reminder of how unpredictable the risks can be. France’s nuclear power plants were at half capacity because of maintenance issues. Severe Europe-wide drought brought water levels of the Rhine River in Germany so low that the country was unable to ship as much coal on barges to fire the coal plants that have been restarted as an alternative to gas.

A cargo ship is loaded with coal in Rheinberg last month. Credit…Ingmar Nolting for The New York Times

Conditions became so bad, Mr. Habeck said, that they actually were worse than the parameters stipulated on July 17. As examples, he mentioned thedrought affecting countries as far north as Norway and the anticipated extreme cost of €300 euros ($298) per megawatt-hour of natural gas, which was soon surpassed byspikes as high as 350 euros.

“Under certain circumstances and in very specific situations, these risks can cluster,” Mr. Habeck said. “Because of all these risks, we cannot safely rely on having enough power plants available to help stabilize our power grid.”

Mr. Habeck said the plants Isar 2 and Neckarwestheim in southern Germany would be kept operational as backup until April 2023. The reactors contribute only modestly to Germany’s power supply, but keeping them running will be welcomed by European neighbors as a way to support the bloc’s shared electricity market.

“We have a very high level of supply security in the electricity system in Germany,” Mr. Habeck said. “But we are part of a European system, and this year is a special year across Europe. The Russian attack on Ukraine has led to a tense situation on the energy markets, and we are doing everything we can to avoid a gas shortage.”

Germany may also find itself in need of the plants in worst case scenarios. The southern states of Bavaria and Baden Württemberg, the economic powerhouses of the country, are more dependent on nuclear power and are not connected to grids in the north that are fueled by windenergy.

Mr. Habeck,has also found the energy crisis difficult as it has forced him to approve the restarting of coal plants and to strike deals for imports of liquid natural gas to offset the loss of Russian gas — once half of Germany’s imports, and now down to 10 percent.

Yet even as he has led his party into sacrificing nearly all of its sacred cows, Mr. Habeck has become one of the most popular politicians in Germany. In polls, he now regularly receives higher ratings than the chancellor.

“We are doing everything that is necessary,” said Mr. Habeck said.

But he flatly rejected the idea that the decision was a backdoor to keeping nuclear energy alive in Germany.“That would be absurd,” he said. “This technology is part of the problem — just look at France.”

The Neckarwestheim power plant. Credit…Michael Probst/Associated Press

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