Time for Germany to reverse its nuclear phase-out policy?



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As the chief executives of both E.ON and RWE call upon Berlin to permit the building of new nuclear power stations to avoid blackouts, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government urgently needs to reassess its policy on phasing out its incumbent nuclear production.

In recent weeks the respective chief executives of E.ON and RWE, Wolf Bernotat and Juergen Grossmann, have warned that Europe’s biggest economy faces growing blackouts unless Germany permits the building of new nuclear power stations. Grossman said that blackouts could occur as early as this summer because of problems with wind power and other sources.

Such language seems a touch disingenuous and is certainly somewhat opportunistic, but the real issue here is Berlin’s decision to stick to the deal made by the Schroeder government in 2000 to phase-out Germany’s existing nuclear plants. Ultimately the agreement will mean that Germany’s 17 operating nuclear power stations, which account for a collective capacity of 21 GW, or 27.5 per cent of total electricity supply, will close by 2021.

Chancellor Merkel actually supports the nuclear industry and its desire to extend the operation of incumbent nuclear power stations to at least 40 years, but her hands have been tied. During the 2005 elections, Ms Merkel’s Christian Democrats pledged to reverse the nuclear phase-out, but failure to gain an outright majority meant that the party was forced to form the so-called ‘Grand Coalition’ with the anti-nuclear Social Democratic Party.

All of Germany’s nuclear power plants are planned, at present, to be be phased out by 2021
Source: Nuclear Energy Agency
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The 2000 phase-out agreement put a cap of 2.6 TWh on the lifetime of the then 19 reactors, equivalent to an average operational lifetime of 32 years. Two small and less viable reactors à‚— Stade and Obrigheim – were shut down in 2003 and 2005 respectively. However, before the next federal elections in autumn 2009, four large, efficient and profitable reactors with a collective 4 GW capacity – Biblis A, Biblis B, Bràƒ¼nsbuttel and Neckarwestheim 1 – are due to use up their remaining generation allowances.

At this point it needs to be mentioned that since the nuclear phase-out policy has been implemented, Germany has become a world leader in renewable energy. The introduction of feed-in tariffs and other incentives (particularly in less affluent parts of Eastern Germany) has seen the country install more than a staggering 22 GW in wind power, around a quarter of global capacity. Solar power has also been a tremendous success in Germany, not sun-drenched by any means, but has still managed to install close to 3 GW of generating capacity and this is growing at a rate of knots.

However, the Social Democratic Party’s argument in phasing out nuclear energy begins to fall down when it is taken into account that, according to a report by Deutsche Bank, Germany will need 42 GW of new capacity by 2022 if the shutdowns proceed. Attaining this, whilst simultaneously reducing CO2 emissions by 36 per cent by 2020, with plans to build up to 25 coal plants burning mostly brown coal à‚— one of the most polluting fossil fuels known to man à‚— is where the environmental opposition to the phase-out falls flat on its face.

Faced with what they see as an unreasonable imposition, the nuclear utilities concerned have reportedly been taking matters into their own hands. Such tactics to fight the early closures relates to the transfer of generation allowances from RWE’s Màƒ¼lheim-Kàƒ¤rlich, which was decommissioned in 2003, to other reactors and another to reallocate allowances of reactors not scheduled to close until much closer to 2020.

Other tactics include extending maintenance outages of the reactors set to cease operation in 2008 and 2009 so that their generation allowances are not used up until after the election, and hope for the best. Needless to say, these unilateral tactics to fend off the closures have led to legal actions between the utilities and Ms Merkel’s government.

The German green movement à‚— famous for its vehement anti-nuclear stance – holds a great deal of sway, but as more and more of prominent environmentalists, such as co-founder of Greenpeace Dr Patrick Moore, espouse the benefits of nuclear energy, the calls to reverse the phase-out policy will grow to a clamour.

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