No phase-out of nuclear power, but also no extension of the service life for German nuclear power plants: Economics Minister Robert Habeck’s “emergency reserve” plan is neither fish nor meat. But hidden among all the hurdles and problems is a little-noticed benefit.

If a power plant operator is initially only partially enthusiastic about being allowed to continue operating his power plant, then that is probably not a good sign. “We have taken note of the federal government’s proposal,” said a statement by the energy company Eon, operator of the Bavarian nuclear power plant Isar 2, on Monday evening. “With the plan now presented, it will first and foremost be important to check whether and how it is technically and organizationally feasible, because in terms of their technical design, nuclear power plants are not reserve power plants that can be switched on and off variably.”

With his Monday announcement on the fate of the remaining three German nuclear power plants, Economics Minister Robert Habeck (Greens) put himself between all stools. The German nuclear power plants will not be shut down at the end of the year as planned, nor will their service life be extended, as is now being demanded in many places.

Instead, Habeck has opted for a middle course: only the Emsland nuclear power plant in Lower Saxony will be shut down as planned on December 31, while the two southern German power plants Neckarwestheim 2 (Baden-Württemberg) and Isar 2 (Bavaria) will be transferred to the so-called “operational reserve”. . The two nuclear power plants are then on standby, so to speak, are still being maintained and have personnel ready. They can then be back online within about a week if their use should be necessary.

Does that make sense? Why don’t we just keep the power plants connected to the grid?

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Experts disagree. The so-called “stress test” of the four German transmission system operators, on which Habeck’s decision was based, had explicitly recommended the continued operation of the three German nuclear power plants. One would have liked to have had clarity, said Stefan Kapferer, head of the network operator 50 Hertz, at the press conference with Habeck on Monday. “But the minister has shown that he wants to keep his options open. And we take note of that.” It was a “political decision,” added Kapferer. Habeck is “very competent in fulfilling its special responsibility for Germany’s security of supply in the coming winter with the appropriate measures,” judges the economist Manfred Fischedick, scientific director of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate.

The search for Habeck logic begins with the results of the “stress test”. There, the four transmission system operators were to investigate in various scenarios whether Germany is threatened with major electricity supply gaps this winter and whether the grids can withstand it. The worst scenario with the number 3 is based on stricter basic assumptions in all problem areas that we already have anyway: the nuclear power plants planned in France due to technical quirks produce even less electricity than now; Due to the low water level on the Rhine, coal-fired power plants cannot be supplied by sea; drought paralyzes hydroelectric power stations across Europe; gas availability plummets; the Germans continue to increase electricity consumption with fan heaters.

The result: In the two tougher scenarios, a so-called load undershoot can occur for a few hours in winter – Germany would then have less electricity than it needs. This need would then have to be covered by additional deliveries from abroad, although it is not 100% certain that they can actually take place. Because other European countries have their own energy problems, above all the close electricity partner France.

But even in the most favorable scenario 1, in which Germany is not at risk of falling short of the load, we are still dependent on deliveries 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 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 on Monday.

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. For this measure, known as “redispatch” in technical jargon, power plants are also needed abroad.

It is against this background that the role of nuclear power must be viewed. 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 less need there is 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” determined. That’s not a lot, but it’s not a little either.

All other contributions that nuclear power could make – for example to electricity production in general or to saving gas – are negligible, the “stress test” also came to the same conclusion. But 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,” admitted Habeck.

But why doesn’t Habeck simply leave the reactors online? At the press conference, the economics minister cited one reason above all: security. “Nuclear power plants are not toys,” said Habeck. His task is to do everything necessary to supply Germany with electricity. But: “Doing everything necessary means refraining from doing what is unnecessary because it is a high-risk technology.” So where the network operators argue that an extension of the service life cannot do any harm, Habeck only wants to see the nuclear power plants connected to the network if it is not at all different.

And exactly this point in time, when there is no other way, can be foreseen with some advance notice, argued Habeck. In December more information will be available about the status of French nuclear power plants, the water level in the Rhine and gas consumption in Germany. “France is planning to have 50 gigawatts of capacity on the grid by the turn of the year, at the moment it’s 20,” said Habeck. “Our European partners say: We will be able to maintain the capacities, but we cannot say for sure, not this year.” And if supply problems are foreseeable, the nuclear power plants can be ramped up within a few days. Of course, the minister hopes that this will not happen.

But is it really that easy to put nuclear power plants into hibernation? There is skepticism in the industry. “Nuclear power plants are unsuitable for the grid reserve because they can’t even be switched on and off,” says Claudia Kermfert, energy economist at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW). “They have to be checked for safety and personnel and fuel elements have to be kept available. This is time-consuming and expensive.”

The biggest problem is that power plant operators have been preparing for the shutdown at the end of December for years. For the nuclear power plant in Neckarwestheim, the operator Enbw has already commissioned special companies, which should actually start with the so-called “dismantling” of the power plant in January: decontamination, dismantling of the reactor, things like that. “Postponing that and rescheduling would cost a lot of money,” said Eon boss Leonhard Birnbaum to “Spiegel” last week.

And then there’s the human factor: many power plant employees already have plans for the next year, have a new employer or take early retirement. At Enbw there are various plans for the more than 700 employees in active power plant operation, for example for retraining or early retirement, said CEO Frank Mastiaux in July. Can these plans now be thrown overboard?

In a way, the Habeck plan obliges to a similar effort as it would have threatened if the term had been extended – only without the advantages associated with it. This also applies in political terms: How can Europe be conveyed that Germany has to ask its partners for delivery capacities, but is not doing everything it can to increase its own capacities? “For fifteen years I have explained Germany’s position on nuclear power to people all over the world, and I have often even defended it,” wrote Lion Hirth, professor of energy policy at Berlin’s Hertie School, on Twitter. “Today is the day I will stop doing this. I don’t know how to explain the decision to effectively shut down even the remaining reactors.”

However, the Habeck plan has one major advantage that is not immediately apparent: it elegantly avoids any amount of legal trouble. Because an official extension of the term, even if it was only for a few months, might have been accompanied by complex examination procedures and constitutional complaints. However, it is much more difficult to take action against a transfer of two reactors to the operational reserve.

In the normal operation of a plant, for example when the service life is extended, the operator is “permanently responsible for optimizing plant safety,” says the legal scholar and nuclear law expert Daniela Winkler from the University of Stuttgart to FOCUS online. “In the case of the emergency reserve, one can doubt that it is an ‘operation’ within the meaning of the regulation.” And because the power plants are only supposed to remain in reserve until April anyway, a new safety check would be unnecessary anyway, believes Winkler.

The reserve plan is also much more difficult to challenge in court than an extension of the term. Because the emergency reserve probably does not require any major changes in the Atomic Energy Act – which in turn would have represented a gateway for lawsuits. A number of well-known environmental organizations threatened to file a lawsuit against a lifetime extension in August, but many organizations are now holding back. “We do not assume that we are entitled to sue,” says Sascha Müller-Kraenner, Managing Director of Deutsche Umwelthilfe, to FOCUS online. Instead, only directly affected residents or local associations could probably file a lawsuit.

“Overall, it cannot be assumed that the Federal Constitutional Court would stop the transfer to the emergency reserve,” estimates Winkler. “In addition, security policy concerns tend to be less important due to the short period of continued operation.” But it is clear, says Müller-Kraenner from the environmental aid agency: Continued use of the “aging nuclear power plants” contributes “little to a secure energy supply”. Instead of taking legal action, environmental aid is now calling on the Greens in the Bundestag to vote against the Habeck plan.

At the end of the day, however, experts warn, we shouldn’t talk too much about nuclear power – other measures are really crucial. In their “stress test” paper, the transmission system operators made a number of recommendations to politicians, but nuclear power is only referred to in one sub-item as an “additional building block”. The very first recommendation of the stress test makers is instead a rapid expansion of the power grids. “Additional potential” would have to be developed as quickly as possible “in order to increase the north-south transport capacity,” write the four transmission system operators.

“The system of electrical energy supply has been more and more sewn to the edge due to political pressure in recent years and secured by Russian gas,” judges Christian Rehtanz, head of the Institute for Energy Systems at the University of Dortmund. “If the situation had escalated a few years later, after more power plants had been finally shut down, it would no longer have been possible to secure the supply.” Fortunately, this winter we were still able to take countermeasures, says Rehtanz. “We’ll get off with a black eye again.”