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Global Economy

A sensitive issue for the nuclear power plant operator

The people of Neckarwestheim live an idyllic life. 30 kilometers north of the Baden-Württemberg state capital of Stuttgart, vineyards and the gently flowing Neckar dominate the picture. But above all, it is the Neckarwestheim II nuclear power plant that has shaped the region for decades – and has caused regular protests. The white cloud of haze from the cooling tower can be seen for many kilometers.

"Is there a disturbance?"

Also in neighboring Kirchheim am Neckar. Every morning, Birgit Riecker looks from her balcony in the direction of the power plant: "We're already checking, is everything okay, in quotation marks. Is everything running? Is there a fault or not?"

While Riecker and her husband are anxiously following the debate about extending the service life, the butcher shop in Neckarwestheim emphasizes how happy they are with the nuclear power plant. Continued operation is "basically good" and "safe," they say here. The EnBW nuclear power plant brought wealth and jobs to the small community. So why shouldn't the community continue to benefit from nuclear power after the planned shutdown later this year?

From a nuclear energy company to an eco-company

It seems to be a sensitive issue for the company that was once so heavily influenced by nuclear power. With Obrigheim, Philippsburg I and II and Neckarwestheim I and II, EnBW temporarily had five nuclear power plants on the grid. A year before the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, nuclear energy accounted for more than a third of the entire electricity mix.

In 2021 it was only around ten percent. With Neckarwestheim II, the chapter on nuclear power should be closed at the end of 2022 and the focus shifted to successes in renewable energies. "Renewable energies are a cornerstone of our strategy and a central point of our growth initiatives," said EnBW CFO Thomas Kusterer on the margins of the half-year report published today.

"Twenty years ago, even optimists didn't expect such increases," says energy expert Armin Grunwald from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology with a view to EnBW. The share of renewable energies more than doubled from 2010 to 2021: from 17.4 to 43.1 percent.

Green, but not green enough yet?

EnBW has become greener, according to the conclusion of the professor for technology assessment. "That doesn't mean that it's already green enough. There's certainly still room for improvement, but the direction is right." You are in a long-term conversion process, and "at some point you have to accept that such a huge transformation takes time".

The war in Ukraine is now also throwing the plans of German energy companies into turmoil. While politicians are still examining and deliberating whether the three remaining nuclear power plants should remain on the grid longer, the heads of EnBW & Co. have to explain their position on nuclear energy again and again.

Term extension not excluded

In May, EnBW boss Frank Mastiaux emphasized, still in view of the developments in Eastern Europe, that the decision to phase out nuclear energy was still supported. However, "all options will be examined with an open mind". In an interview with the "Handelsblatt" earlier this month, Mastiaux was a little clearer: "We would be ready for such a temporary continued operation if it is wanted."

CFO Thomas Kusterer repeated EnBW's position on today's presentation of the half-year balance sheet: "I think this is a political decision and we'll just have to wait and see how it's made." However, continued operation will only bring a few weeks at most, which the Neckarwestheim II nuclear power plant could remain on the grid in the new year.

Are old technologies being revived?

Due to imminent energy bottlenecks, more and more coal-fired power plants are now to be connected to the grid again. Is the energy crisis threatening to stop the expansion of renewable energies? Analyst Erkan Ayçiçek from the Landesbank Baden-Württemberg (LBBW) does not believe that. "We currently have to mobilize all capacities to reduce dependence on Russian gas." That is also correct from an economic point of view, but has little impact on the expansion of sustainable energy sources.

"Renewable energies are the big winners. We will see strong efforts to reduce dependency," Ayçiçek told tagesschau.de. The analyst also does not believe in a revival of nuclear power: Renewables could no longer be stopped.

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