Nuclear Power Only in an Emergency – What Do Habeck’s Plans Mean?

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According to Habeck, two of the last three German nuclear power plants will remain available as reserves after the turn of the year until mid-April 2023. © Armin Weigel / dpa

Controversy around the reserve flared up immediately. Environmental groups are concerned about phasing out nuclear energy. What about safety if two German nuclear power plants can still supply electricity in 2023?

Berlin – Few expected it: Federal Economy Minister Robert Habeck does not want to forever shut down the last German nuclear power plants from the network as planned at the end of the year. But they shouldn’t just keep going. Instead, the green politician wants to transfer two of the three remaining nuclear power plants to the reserve. The concept raises many questions.

What is this new reserve supposed to be?

The Ministry of Economy calls them “operating reserves”. If necessary, Isar 2 in Bavaria and Neckarwestheim in Baden-Württemberg should make an additional contribution to the electricity grid in winter. Do not use new fuel rods for this. Both plants should be available by mid-April. After that, it should end for them too. For the winter of 2023/24, the Ministry no longer considers such an operating reserve necessary.

When and under what circumstances will the reserve be used?

Several measures are aimed at ensuring sufficient electricity, for example better use of power plants and power lines. Only if all this is not enough to avert a supply crisis should both nuclear power plants be restarted. The ministry speaks of an “emergency operation” to “defend a specific threat to security of supply”.

Robert Habeck
The Minister of Economy is controversial with his idea of ​​creating reserves for nuclear power plants. © Kay Nietfeld / dpa

The baseline scenarios assume, inter alia, that coal-fired power plants can no longer generate as much electricity as they can no longer obtain enough fuel due to the persistently low water level. It is also assumed that many other power plants in Germany and France are not available. At the same time, the model assumes intensive use of heaters and an extremely high gas price.

Is there still enough staff in reserve?

It has been known for many years that the end of 2022 is actually the end. Companies have been preparing for this for a long time. In late July, EnBW CEO Frank Mastiaux said there were retraining or early retirement plans for more than 700 employees working at the operating power plant. EnBW is the operator of the Neckarwestheim nuclear power plant. EnBW and Eon now also want to check whether exploitation of the reserves is “organizational” feasible. There is probably also a staffing issue behind the wording.

How much does a reserve operation cost?

The department calls the costs of providing personnel and technology “manageable” without giving an exact amount. These costs are to be reimbursed to operators by the state. Consumers should not be burdened with this. If the nuclear power plant starts up again, any “accidental gains” – that is, the high gains from the very high market prices of electricity as a result of the gas crisis – should also be “pushed back”, as is the case with other plants. The money is to be used to finance the so-called electricity price brake, which aims to reduce the price of electricity to basic consumption.

What about security?

According to the Nuclear Energy Act, the Periodic Safety Review (PSÜ), under which nuclear power plants are intensively tested over many months, usually has to be carried out every ten years. The last PSÜ for three reactors took place in 2009. The test, which was actually scheduled for 2019, has been suspended due to a shutdown date on December 31, 2022.

Even before the announcement of the results of the stress tests, the Federal Office for the Safety of Nuclear Waste Management warned that the reactors could continue to operate “with undetected deficits” if extended. According to the Federal Office, the state and society would have to decide “whether they want to bear the risk of a catastrophic failure for the sake of energy production.”

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

Why should the Emsland nuclear power plant not be part of the reserve?

Habeck argues that southern Germany has fewer alternative nuclear power plants 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 important industrial centers are in great demand there. There are also no network connections in Bavaria. On the other hand, in northern Germany, floating ships with oil power plants should be used to cover any gaps.

The network operators who carried out the stress test commissioned by the ministry came to a different conclusion than Habeck. They pleaded in favor of leaving all three remaining nuclear power plants for further operation. Vice-chairman of the EU parliamentary group Jens Spahn (CDU) mentioned that the nuclear power plant in Emsland should not be included in the reserve following the state elections in Lower Saxony on October 9. Green leader Ricarda Lang disagreed with this – in ARD “Mittagsmagazin” argued that security of supply is particularly problematic in southern Germany.

Is the reserve enough?

no According to the grid operator stress test, the three remaining German nuclear power plants could make a limited contribution if they continued to operate in critical situations in the electricity grid – and only two of them should be placed in the reserve.

To stabilize the grid, the three power plants would reduce the need to balance power plants abroad by only 0.5 gigawatts in a so-called “very critical” scenario, transmission system operators in Berlin said on Monday. Even then, there would still be a 4.6 gigawatt requirement overseas. Such balancing plants can supply the German market with short-term electricity to compensate for network bottlenecks.

The ministry emphasizes that if all three nuclear power plants were to completely burn out their fuel elements, there would be only slightly less electricity in the gas-fired power plants. The quantity in Germany is 0.9 terawatt hours, which corresponds to approximately one thousand German gas consumption.

That is why Habeck continues to call for energy savings. He also wants to further break down barriers to greater use of renewable energy, and his house sent proposals to other ministries on Tuesday. dpa

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