No phase-out of nuclear power, but also no extension of the lifespan of German nuclear power plants: Economics Minister Robert Habeck’s “emergency reserve” plan is neither fish nor meat – and may not work at all. 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.”

On Wednesday, the Eon subsidiary Preussen Elektra, which is responsible for operating the power plant, dropped the bomb: In a leaked letter to the Ministry of Economic Affairs, the company’s management said that Habeck’s plan could not be implemented in reality. “Sending two of the three running systems to the cold reserve at the turn of the year in order to start them up if necessary is technically not feasible and therefore unsuitable for securing the supply contribution of the systems,” says the letter, which is available to FOCUS online. The ministry was informed about this on August 25 – almost two weeks ago. The “Spiegel” and the Bavarian radio reported first.

But that’s not all: The procedure planned by the Ministry of Economic Affairs “is not practiced in this form and we have no experience with it,” writes the management. “Testing a start-up procedure that has never been practiced before should not coincide with a critical state of the power supply.” Such an approach is “incompatible with our safety culture,” the letter says. It would be a bitter irony: Green Minister Habeck’s nuclear plan could end up being the most uncertain of all.

The Economics Minister had conceived his plan primarily from the perspective of security. “Nuclear power plants are not toys,” Habeck said at a press conference on Monday. 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.”

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For this, Habeck had also accepted to sit between all stools with his middle ground: Only the Emsland nuclear power plant in Lower Saxony will be shut down as planned on December 31st, Habeck announced on Monday evening. The two southern German power plants Neckarwestheim 2 (Baden-Württemberg) and Isar 2 (Bavaria), on the other hand, 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.

According to Habeck, they can then go online again within about a week if their use should be necessary. The operators of Isar 2 vehemently disagree. A restart in the advanced stretching operation is “not feasible, and certainly not at short notice within a week,” says the letter.

How the plan will continue is unclear. A slightly puzzled Ministry of Economic Affairs announced on Wednesday that it would seek talks with the nuclear power plant operators. It was “difficult to see what technical problems would arise in the case of the operational reserve, which would not arise in the stretching operation offered by Preussen Elektra,” it said in a statement. In ministry circles it is suspected that there could be no objective reasons behind the fire letter from Preussen Elektra, but rather financial motives – or even the interests of the Bavarian state government, which has been demanding continued operation of Isar 2 for months.

Spicy, however: Not only Preussen Elektra, but also the so-called “stress test” of the four German transmission system operators, on which Habeck’s decision was based, had explicitly recommended 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.

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 in France, which are plagued by technical quirks, produce even less electricity than they do 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 have to be covered by additional deliveries from abroad, but it is not 100% certain that they can also be made. 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. Due to the sheer volume, this measure, known as “redispatch” in technical terms, also requires power plants 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.

However, Habeck argued that precisely this point in time, when the contribution of German nuclear power could be indispensable, can be foreseen with some advance notice. 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.” This results in three scenarios to which Habeck’s plan would respond with different answers:

A lot now depends on whether the power plant operators and the Ministry of Economics manage to agree on a common reality. Another problem is that the 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 is the human factor: many power plant employees already have plans for the next year, are obliged to work for a new employer or are taking 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?

However, all these problems would also exist if the term were extended. In a way, the Habeck Plan requires a similar effort as it would have threatened if it had been extended – only without the associated advantages. 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 would have 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”. Instead, the very first recommendation of the stress test makers is 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.”