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Global Economy

What is technically possible, what is discussed?

Should and can the last three German piles continue to run?

Germany's neighbor Belgium has already postponed the phase-out of nuclear energy by ten years because of the Russian war in Ukraine. In the federal government, the FDP in particular is open to this. But even the Greens no longer rule out temporary continued operation. In a real emergency situation, such as when hospitals can no longer work, you have to talk about it, said Bundestag Vice President Katrin Göring-Eckardt on "Anne Will".

The Green-led Ministry of Economics is subjecting the power supply to a more stringent stress test. It also looks to France, where around half of the nuclear power plants were off the grid due to defects or maintenance, so that the reactors supplied less electricity than usual. There is even a suggestion from Bavaria to start up nuclear power plants that have already been shut down – because the state is under particular pressure.

Which nuclear power plants are there and how much electricity do they produce?

There are currently three nuclear power plants connected to the grid: Emsland in Lower Saxony, Isar 2 in Bavaria and Neckarwestheim 2 in Baden-Württemberg. According to current law, the three reactors must be switched off by December 31, 2022 at the latest. According to the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems, together they generated around 6.4 percent of the electricity in Germany this year (as of July 26, 10:04 a.m.).

In the same period, natural gas contributed 10.1 percent to the electricity mix, while renewable energies had the largest share at 51.6 percent. The electricity generated by nuclear power this year could supply almost 4.5 million four-person households for a year at average consumption.

What is the point if heat is actually used for heating?

Natural gas, which is threatening to become scarce, is actually used primarily for heating. But it also contributes around ten percent to electricity production in Germany. If you were to rely on nuclear energy for longer, you could use more gas for heating. Nuclear engineer Thomas Walter Tromm from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) assumes that the nuclear power generated since the turn of the year can replace enough natural gas to heat around three million single-family homes per year. However, it is disputed how much electricity the nuclear power plants could still supply with their older fuel rods.

Is an extension technically and legally possible?

From a purely technical point of view, this is only possible from an expert's point of view if new fuel elements are available by next summer. Until then, a so-called stretching operation could be run. Then the nuclear power plants would be operated at reduced power for a few months so that the fuel rods would last longer. However, this does not give you more power, the production is only stretched over a longer period of time. The Ministries for Economics and for the Environment assume that new fuel elements would not be available for a year at the earliest.

According to a test report by the ministries in March, additional electricity could only be produced from autumn 2023. It is also questionable whether there are enough spare parts for the operation and the security systems. In order to make an extension legally possible, the Bundestag would have to change the Atomic Energy Act. Because at the end of the year all operating licenses for nuclear power plants in Germany will expire. According to the case law of the European Court of Justice, a new environmental impact assessment may be necessary if the service life is extended, and the risk would also have to be reassessed.

How about security?

The safety of nuclear power plants in Germany must be thoroughly checked every ten years. However, the last date in 2019 was canceled because the reactors were supposed to be shut down in 2022 anyway. "If operation continued after January 1st, 2023, the last security check would be 13 years old, and a new one would be imperative," write the ministries. Such a test could take years. Nevertheless, the three systems are at a high level in terms of safety. TÜV Süd has also tested the Isar 2 power plant and has not expressed any concerns.

Environmental organizations such as the Bund Naturschutz (BUND) and Greenpeace warn that the phase-out of nuclear power will be postponed again, pointing to incalculable security risks.

What are the critics saying?

The Federation for the Environment and Nature Conservation in Germany (BUND) presented a study on Thursday that categorically rejects the continued operation of nuclear power plants. The benefits are out of all proportion to the risks and costs. The safety checks carried out last in 2009 were based on a set of rules from the early 1980s, in which the nuclear accidents in Chernobyl and Fukushima were not even taken into account.

However, a legal opinion commissioned by Greenpeace Germany accuses TÜV Süd of bias. A report by TÜV Süd on behalf of the Bavarian Ministry of the Environment, which had expressed no reservations about continued operation, was criticized. Specifically, a Hamburg law firm accuses TÜV Süd of "sloppily arguing commissioned work" that "cannot be recognized as a serious assessment". The impression also arises that the TÜV ignores the applicable nuclear law. The TÜV rating was "apparently intended for use as a weapon in the current discussion about extending the service life in the political arena," it said. There is a suspicion "that a courtesy report has been prepared here," according to the lawyers. The Bavarian Ministry of the Environment rejected the allegation.

Can you find enough workers for the nuclear power plants?

The power plant operators have also prepared themselves in terms of personnel for the end of 2022. If the piles are to run longer, they would need additional, well-trained employees. The ministries assume that these can only be obtained with financial incentives. Other experts, on the other hand, believe that the systems could probably continue to be operated with the personnel who were intended for the dismantling. The operators have another problem: They received compensation for the nuclear phase-out. It is unclear whether they will be allowed to keep it in full if the piles will continue to run for months.

What alternative is there?

Instead of operating nuclear power plants longer, one could also rely more on coal again. Proponents of nuclear power therefore argue, among other things, with climate protection: Viewed over the entire life cycle, nuclear power plants are responsible for significantly fewer greenhouse gas emissions than, for example, gas or coal-fired power plants. However, this ignores the fact that there is still no solution to safely store the highly radioactive and hazardous nuclear waste in Germany for hundreds or thousands of years.

What do other EU countries say about this?

According to research by the dpa news agency, several EU countries are pushing for the use of nuclear power in Germany beyond December 31st. In view of the gas crisis, there are also calls to check whether the reactors that were last taken off the grid should be restarted. From the point of view of countries such as Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and France, the continued operation of German nuclear power plants could make a significant contribution to saving gas, since around 15 percent of Germany's electricity was still generated by gas-fired power plants. If Russia cuts off all gas supplies to the EU, more reserves would be available for domestic and industrial heating.

The background is the EU emergency plan for the gas crisis. It envisages reducing national gas consumption by 15 percent from August to March. This also gives support to those in favor of longer terms, for example in the CDU, CSU and FDP.

Why are people in Bavaria in particular campaigning for continued operation?

There are hardly any wind farms in southern Germany – and their construction is progressing slowly. At the same time, there are no high-voltage lines that could efficiently transport electricity from the north. At the same time, there are only a few coal-fired power plants in Bavaria that could take over the production of electricity. According to Bavaria's Economics Minister Hubert Aiwanger (Free Voters), the Isar 2 nuclear power plant alone already covers 15 percent of Bavaria's electricity needs.

The risk of winter supply bottlenecks is therefore greater in Bavaria than in other federal states, argues the Greens parliamentary group leader there, Ludwig Hartmann. In extreme cases, one must think about the continued operation of individual nuclear power plants – if the power supply and network stability are in danger, he told the "Augsburger Allgemeine". Aiwanger would also like to restart reactors that have already been shut down.

According to the Ministry of Economic Affairs, these would then have to go through the entire approval process with numerous tests and in some cases also be re-equipped. "Restarting the three nuclear power plants that were shut down on December 31, 2021 is out of the question, if only because of the licensing situation (expired operating license), which cannot be legally changed with legal certainty," says the test report.

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