Russian President Vladimir Putin’s game is as effective as it is transparent. Not only does he reduce gas deliveries to Germany, he plays with the needs of his good but dependent customer. Sometimes 40 percent, then nothing, then 40 again. Starting tomorrow, deliveries will be halved again.

The game is likely to repeat itself as long as the country looks spellbound at the President in Moscow. From the Kremlin he looks back to the west with a satisfied feeling of special power. Putin’s strength is the result of years of misguided energy policy in this country. Almost simultaneously, coal, nuclear power and gas will have to be replaced this year. That’s too much for Europe’s largest economy.

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It’s time for an unbiased look at the energy supply, especially where ideology on all political sides has prevented correct results for years. Economics Minister Robert Habeck (Greens) has been subjecting the German power supply to a stress test for a few days. The result may be that the remaining German nuclear power plants will also be operated longer. But some facts about the former energy of the future are already clear:

Three reactors are still in operation: Isar 2 in Bavaria, Emsland in Lower Saxony and Neckarwestheim 2 in Baden-Württemberg. Around six percent of the electricity in Germany was still generated by the three reactors in the first quarter of 2022. If the nuclear power plants were allowed to continue running, at least these six percent would not have to be fed from alternative sources – in the worst case gas, which is required for heating.

In the first quarter, 13 percent of German electricity was generated with the now missing gas – also because three nuclear power plants had already gone off the grid at the end of last year. Nuclear engineer Thomas Walter Tromm from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology calculates: “The three nuclear power plants generated 33 terawatt hours of electricity last year. If you were to convert that into gas, you could heat around three million single-family homes with it. “

The answer to that is clear. According to industry information, the variable costs for an extension of nuclear power plants would be around 20 euros per megawatt hour – for the procurement of the fuel rods and operating costs. Fixed costs are added. For comparison: According to the industry, the variable costs for the extension of the coal-fired power plants are 200 euros per megawatt hour. This is mainly due to the price of coal, which is at a record level of almost 400 US dollars per tonne on the market. The generation of electricity from coal-fired power plants is also the most harmful to the climate and, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, amounts to 735 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour. In the case of ⁠nuclear power, on the other hand, the median is only 12 grams.

Yes, but with restrictions: According to the Ministry for the Environment and Economic Affairs, the three German nuclear power plants could continue to be operated with the existing fuel rods after the end of the year, but only if their output was throttled (“extended operation”). The existing staffs would burn down more slowly. New fuel rods are available, but not immediately. The industry association KernD makes it clear: “With appropriate prioritization, a new delivery is possible within 12 months of the order.” If you want, it could also go faster. Industry experts expect the fuel rods to be procured within three to six months.

The German nuclear power plants buy their fuel elements mainly from the French Framatome and the American-Swedish Westinghouse group. The uranium itself does not come from Russia either: although the entire EU imported 20 percent of its uranium from Russia every year, Germany obtained the metal from Canada and the Netherlands.

The safety of nuclear power plants in Germany has to be checked thoroughly every ten years – however, at the last date in 2019, the plants were no longer screened in view of the shutdown date at the end of 2022. However, experts do not see a higher risk as a result, TÜV Süd had examined an extension using the example of the Isar 2 power plant and announced no further concerns.

However, the extension is more difficult from a legal point of view. While the industry association KernD emphasizes that the power plants would already have an operating license that is still valid, the Ministry of Economic Affairs assumes that a new approval process including an environmental impact assessment and other steps will have to be carried out.

The government is also more cautious when it comes to security. Without the safety check that failed in 2019, no reactor should remain online longer than planned. 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”.

For Markus Söder, the matter is clear: Without an extension of the nuclear power plants, “an additional power gap” would arise from 2023. It was “complete nonsense” not to let the three remaining nuclear power plants run beyond December. The reasons would only be based on “purely ideological Basta arguments”.

But what the Prime Minister does not want to admit: The bottleneck is looming, especially in Bavaria:

There are 56 reactors in France, 29 are idle. On the one hand, more reactors than usual are currently being serviced because repairs had to be postponed due to lockdowns during the pandemic. On the other hand, the record temperatures are causing problems with the cooling water that the nuclear power plants discharge into the rivers. There is also a corrosion problem due to cracks in the cooling pipes.

The problem: France’s electricity mix is ​​highly dependent on nuclear energy. Nuclear energy accounts for around 70 percent of the entire electricity mix, but they can currently only supply 49 percent. In June 2022, the French piles produced 20.2 terawatt hours – 27 percent less than in the same period of the previous year.

If the nuclear power plants are not running in France, the price of electricity in this country will skyrocket. Germany imported 9.8 terawatt hours from France in 2021. The electricity export surplus continues to decline. In 2021, we exported a total of 71.6 terawatt hours of electricity, mainly to surrounding European countries such as Austria and Belgium, while importing 52.4 terawatt hours. In the first quarter, 1.3 terawatt hours of electricity from renewable sources were exported to France to compensate for the outage of nuclear power plants.

Conclusion: foreign policy is about accepting the bad in order not to have to do the worse. The same applies to energy policy in times of war. Nuclear power may no longer be a technology of the future, but it is a bridge to independence from Putin. The Greens would have to question the core of their policy at least for a reasonable period of time. It would be the right decision.

Gabor Steingart is one of the best-known journalists in the country. He publishes the newsletter The Pioneer Briefing. The podcast of the same name is Germany’s leading daily podcast for politics and business. Since May 2020, Steingart has been working with his editorial staff on the ship “The Pioneer One”. Before founding Media Pioneer, Steingart was, among other things, Chairman of the Management Board of the Handelsblatt Media Group. You can subscribe to his free newsletter here.

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