And they are still running: The southern German nuclear power plants will most likely remain connected to the grid at the beginning of 2023. What looks like a U-turn by Economics Minister Habeck is in fact not one. However, at the end of this episode, none of the participants are really good-looking.

Sleep is always a problem, especially in turbulent times like these, but that evening he will fall asleep satisfied, says Michael Kruse. The energy policy spokesman for the FDP parliamentary group had long advocated leaving the German nuclear power plants on the grid next year instead of shutting them down as planned.

And now, three months before the turn of the year, Kruse’s wish is probably coming true: “As of today”, his ministry assumes that the “reserve” will be drawn and the Isar 2 and Neckarwestheim nuclear power plants will continue to be connected to the grid in the first quarter of 2023 , said Economics Minister Robert Habeck (Greens) on Tuesday. It “took a while to get Robert Habeck on the right track,” Kruse wrote on Twitter. “But slowly everyone in the Ministry of Economics is beginning to understand what the hour has come.”

So is Habeck, who suddenly crashed in the polls, with the important Lower Saxony election in mind, now giving in? This interpretation lends itself, but collides with reality. Because Habeck had always left the back door of a term extension open. At the beginning of September, when he presented his nuclear power reserve plan to the public for the first time, the minister repeatedly referred to the key role of France, an important electricity supplier for Germany: 28 of 56 nuclear reactors there are currently not connected to the grid. On the one hand, this is due to necessary maintenance work that was postponed during the Corona crisis and is now being made up for. A total of 13 reactors also have corrosion problems, the cause of which has yet to be found. Normally, however, France generates 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear power.

The result: Electricity production in France has reached a historic low – and the country has to import electricity from Germany instead of exporting it to the neighboring country as usual. Not only does the Federal Republic have less electricity available, it also has to sell more of the electricity it produces itself. In such a situation, of course, every kilowatt counts, also for reasons of European solidarity. And the green concerns about “high-risk nuclear power technology”, as Habeck put it, should recede into the background.

But at the beginning of September there was still reason for hope for Habeck: under pressure from President Emmanuel Macron, the state-owned French energy company EDF had presented ambitious plans to bring the shut-down reactors back online by winter. “France is planning to have 50 gigawatts of capacity on the grid by the turn of the year, at the moment it’s 20,” Habeck said at the time. “Our European partners say: We will be able to maintain the capacities, but we cannot say for sure, not this year.”

This resulted in three scenarios to which Habeck’s plan wanted to react with different answers:

Scenario 1: The situation eases up in November and December, Germany could make ends meet even without nuclear power. In this case, the three nuclear power plants would be shut down as planned on December 31st.

Scenario 2: The situation worsens in November and December, Germany would be dependent on contributions from nuclear power. In this case, the “reserve” would be activated immediately, and the power plants would continue to run in stretch mode from the New Year without being switched off in between.

Scenario 3: The supply problems only become apparent in January or February. According to the Habeck plan, the power plants would then be taken out of the “reserve” to which they had been sent on December 31st and would be restarted.

But already now, at the end of September, it seems clear that Germany will end up in scenario 2. In France, progress can be seen in the major maintenance offensive, but many power plants are expected to come back on line later than planned. The information from EDF had “in the past often turned out to be too positive,” said Habeck on Tuesday.

The conclusion of the Economics Minister: “The situation in France is not good and has developed worse than forecast in recent weeks.” The hoped-for scenario with the 50 gigawatts is obsolete, now only 45 gigawatts are expected. In the so-called “stress test”. , which the Ministry of Economics had carried out to test the security of supply for the winter, the four responsible transmission system operators had calculated various scenarios – in the worst possible scenario, the French nuclear power plants also only produce: 45 gigawatts.

Ironically, the ailing French nuclear fleet is forcing a green federal minister to let the German nuclear power plants continue to run against his will. But couldn’t Habeck have had it easier? Especially since the “stress test” had explicitly recommended leaving the German nuclear power plants on the grid? Not a few representatives of the German energy industry considered Habeck’s hopes for a French nuclear renaissance to be wishful thinking from the start. The result is now the same as if Habeck had immediately opted for a short term extension – only with much more destroyed political capital.

It was also foreseeable that the Federal Republic could not only face a problem with France in the winter, but also a problem with Bavaria. Because even in the most favorable scenario, in which Germany can produce enough electricity for its own use, we would still be dependent on supplies from abroad. This has to do with the strong north-south divide in German electricity production.

Thanks mainly to wind power, the north of the republic generates significantly more electricity than is required, while southern federal states such as Bavaria have become net importers. The expansion of the network to Bavaria has been sluggish in recent years, thanks in part to years of resistance from the CSU. “We have a relatively large amount of power generation in the north-east, while we have too little in the south-west,” said Tim Meyerjürgens from the network operator Tennet when the stress test results were presented in early September.

The result: In stressful situations, there is not always enough capacity in the lines to bring the required electricity from north to south. Instead, so-called back-up power plants have to start up in the south, while the corresponding power plants in the north shut down. Due to the sheer volume, this measure, known as “redispatch” in technical jargon, also requires power plants abroad.

It is also against this background that the role of nuclear power must be considered. The three German nuclear power plants contribute only six percent of electricity production in Germany. But two of the three power plants are in the south of the republic. And the more electricity the South has, the lower the need for “redispatches”. With nuclear power in hand, the “redispatch” requirement would drop from 5.1 gigawatts to 4.6 gigawatts at particularly critical moments, the ” Stress test”. That’s not a lot, but it’s not a little either.

According to the transmission system operators, these 0.5 gigawatts in the most critical hours are reason enough to leave the nuclear power plants connected to the grid. “One cannot rule out that they will be able to make a contribution in the tense situation,” Habeck admitted when presenting the “stress test” results.

In this respect, not only the Federal Minister of Economics is criticized at the end of the nuclear hiccup, but also the state government in Bavaria. A more determined expansion of wind power and an earlier commitment to expanding the power line would have at least mitigated the situation in Bavaria, for which the CSU has repeatedly criticized Habeck.

In the Berlin Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Ministry of the Environment, both of which are led by the Greens, it is difficult to contain the anger over a number of attacks from Munich. For example, the matter with the statement by TÜV Süd, a thin seven-page paper that certified the Bavarian nuclear power plant Isar 2 that it could simply continue to operate without “technical measures”. The state government used the statement, which it had commissioned itself, to publicize the field as proof that nothing stands in the way of continued operation.

In September, however, it turned out that the paper was wrong on one important point: Due to a defective valve, “technical measures” will certainly be necessary, and the power plant will have to be shut down for a week for repairs. Federal Environment Minister Steffi Lemke (Greens) publicly considered at the time whether it could be that the Bavarian authorities really did not know anything about the defect beforehand.

They also attribute an inglorious role to the Isar 2 operator Preussen Elektra, a subsidiary of Eon, in the Ministry of Economic Affairs. As the only remaining nuclear power plant operator, Preussen Elektra had repeatedly campaigned aggressively for an extension of the service life. Two days after Habeck’s reserve announcement, the company then published a letter to the Ministry of Economic Affairs, which stated that the Habeck plan was “technically unfeasible” and incompatible with the company’s “safety culture”. Instead, they are in favor of extending the term.

A perplexed Habeck then explained that the procedure had only been clarified with Preussen Elektra a few weeks earlier, “so exactly what you are saying today is not possible”. But by then it was too late, and Habeck was sure of another day of negative reporting. At the time, ministry circles suspected that the letter from Preussen Elektra had less factual than financial reasons – or that the interests of the Bavarian state government might even be behind it.

Now, a few weeks later, the turnaround: the modalities of a possible continued operation have been agreed with the Ministry of Economics and the Environment, Preussen Elektra announced on Tuesday. The modalities are outlined in a key points paper by the Ministry of Economics, which is available to FOCUS online.

It is therefore technically possible, but not recommended, to temporarily shut down the Isar 2 reactor and restart it if necessary, as Habeck initially thought. The reason: According to the ministry, the reactor core would then have to be reconfigured – which requires a new safety check that can take four to six weeks. Instead, the power plant should simply run until March 2023.

In any case, the reservations about “technical feasibility” seem to have been dispelled. The federal government wants to make a final decision on continued operation by the beginning of December at the latest.