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Global Economy

What a nuclear power plant extension would mean

What is the status of the traffic light for a runtime extension of the nuclear power plants?

As early as March, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Ministry of the Environment – both under Green leadership – examined an extension of the term. The result: "Extending the runtimes could only make a very limited contribution to solving the problem, and this at very high economic costs and with reductions in the necessary safety checks – and that with a high-risk technology."

But the traffic light disagrees. Coalition partner FDP has recently called more and more clearly for a longer term, the SPD has so far opposed it and speaks of a "sham debate". Green Party leader Ricarda Lang hinted at "Anne Will" that a temporary extension of the term could not be ruled out. Of course, you always have to react to the current situation and “check all measures”.

The Federal Ministry of Economics also indicated a possible rethink on Monday. A spokeswoman referred to a newly ordered power supply security review under certain scenarios. "On the basis of these results, a decision will then be made as to what to do," said the spokeswoman, according to the Reuters news agency, when asked about a possible extension of the service life.

The Union, in turn, recently submitted an application to the Bundestag to extend the term, which was rejected.

The political debate surrounding the threat of a permanent gas ban from Russia is constantly evolving.

What role does nuclear energy play in Germany?

The last three nuclear power plants in Germany are to be shut down by the end of 2022. Three reactors are still in operation: Isar 2 in Bavaria, the Emsland nuclear power plant in Lower Saxony and Neckarwestheim 2 in Baden-Württemberg. Around six percent of the electricity in Germany was still generated by nuclear energy in the first quarter of 2022.

Proponents of an extended service life emphasize that this would lead to less electricity being generated from gas. Opponents, on the other hand, point out that nuclear power plants only supply electricity, not heat, and therefore cannot replace missing gas supplies.

Who is right?

A bit far both sides, depending on your perspective. Currently, 13 percent of German electricity is generated with gas power plants and six percent with nuclear power. If nuclear power is no longer available at the end of the year, more will have to be generated with other energy sources – i.e. with coal, gas or renewable energies. If the nuclear power plants were allowed to run longer, this proportion of electricity would not have to be replaced. So, as long as renewable energies cannot cover everything, Germany would not have to switch to climate-damaging coal production for at least this six percent, nor would it have to use gas for it. That could be used for heating.

Nuclear engineer Thomas Walter Tromm from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology estimates: "The three nuclear power plants generated 33 terawatt hours of electricity last year. If you convert that into gas, you can heat around three million single-family homes with it."

What cannot succeed: replacing more gas with nuclear power than before. Because the three nuclear power plants could only supply as much electricity as before, but not more, even if they continued to operate unchanged. It is also disputed how much electricity the nuclear power plants would actually deliver if they continued to operate. Because this depends on how much energy the remaining fuel rods can generate and when new fuel rods could be procured.

The test certificate from the Ministry of the Environment and Economics came to the conclusion in March that the three nuclear power plants with the existing fuel rods after 31.12. could only continue if power generation was throttled beforehand:

Would it be technically possible to extend the term?

From a purely technical perspective, it would be conceivable, says nuclear physicist Clemens Walther from the Institute for Radioecology and Radiation Protection at Leibniz Universität Hannover: "The fuel elements that would be necessary for continued operation would be available by summer 2023. Until then, stretching would be possible, and the power plants could continue to be operated at around 80 percent of the capacity."

Stretch operation means that the nuclear power plants are operated with less power so that the fuel rods deliver energy for longer.

Nuclear expert Tromm also believes that an extension of several months is possible. Until then, the fuel assemblies would suffice if the power was reduced. The operator of the Emsland nuclear power plant, RWE, estimates the procurement period at twelve to 24 months and points out that new fuel elements have to be manufactured individually for each plant.

Where does the uranium for fuel rod production come from?

The largest export countries for uranium to Germany in 2020 were Canada with 62 percent and the Netherlands with 38 percent, according to the European statistical office Eurostat. The Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources is currently not aware of any direct deliveries of uranium from Russia to Germany.

However, around 20 percent of the uranium used in the EU comes from Russia. The Euratom Supply Agency (ESA) published this number in 2020. Over 19 percent of the uranium in the EU also comes from Russia's ally Kazakhstan. So a total of almost 40 percent.

Environmental organizations such as BUND criticize in the "Uranium Atlas" that uranium from Russia and Kazakhstan was also processed in Germany via other European countries and that there is therefore a dependency on Russia.

What about the security checks for a term extension?

Every ten years, the operator of a power plant must carry out what is known as a periodic safety check. The goal: to comprehensively evaluate the safety concept of the system. In view of the switch-off date of 2022, these were no longer carried out in 2019.

For nuclear technician Tromm, however, this does not mean that the nuclear power plants are subsequently unsafe: "In between the safety checks, there are always revisions accompanied by the replacement of some fuel elements. Therefore, the continued operation of the plants for several months does not pose a safety risk to me." The last revision at the Isar 2 nuclear power plant, for example, was in October 2021.

TÜV Süd examined more closely whether the Isar 2 nuclear power plant could remain connected to the grid from a technical point of view and had no further concerns. However, there are doubts in the federal government as to whether the necessary security checks could be carried out as proposed in the report.

Would there be enough staff in the nuclear power plants to enable longer operation?

In a request from the ARD capital studio, the operator RWE points out that the personnel planning was geared towards the closure at the end of the year. Nuclear expert Tromm sees this less critically: The staff would also have been provided for the dismantling and could probably continue to operate the respective systems.

How do the operators of the power plants feel about extending the service life?

The operators of the power plants are skeptical about extending the service life. At the request of the ARD capital studio, EnBW (Neckarwestheim nuclear power station) refers to the exit, which is "consistently implemented". RWE (AKW Emsland) also estimates the "hurdles for a meaningful extended operation to be high". However, PreussenElektra, a subsidiary of E.ON and operator of the Isar 2 nuclear power plant, writes that "under certain conditions it would be possible to continue operating Isar 2" if the nuclear power plant were needed.

In their answers, the operators refer to the decision of the federal government, which has already decided against extending the term.

Is an extension legally possible and who would take responsibility?

The industry association KernD, which only speaks for some of the remaining nuclear power plant operators, is of the opinion that there is no need for a new, extensive approval process: "A new approval would not be necessary," writes the lawyer Christian Raetzke in an analysis, to which KernD refers. The plants would "still have full operating licenses". The environment and economy ministries, on the other hand, assume that a new approval process would be necessary, including an environmental impact assessment and many other steps.

There is conflicting information as to whether the power plants should be allowed to continue operating at all without the periodic safety inspection. Lawyer Raetzke argues that one could catch up on this in a variant "tailored to the limited additional term". A spokeswoman for the Ministry of the Environment, on the other hand, points out that the reactors "may not continue to operate without a completed periodic safety check".

Both sides keep a low profile when it comes to the question of liability: If the state asks the operators to extend the service life at short notice – would it have to step in if something happens? Without the tests, it is "foreseeable that cutbacks in safety will have to be made", explains the Ministry of the Environment – and that "the operators would then also transfer the risk to the state".

What would be the cost of an extension?

That's difficult to judge at the moment. Among other things, it would depend on how long the piles should continue to run – three months, six or even longer? New fuel rods, the reactivation of personnel, safety checks, operating costs, insurance: the state would probably have to pay for all of this if a political decision was made to extend the service life. And the final storage of nuclear waste is still unresolved.

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