German nuclear exit wobbles as energy crisis looms

FRANKFURT – A looming energy crisis has rekindled debate in Germany about the wisdom of shutting down the country’s last three nuclear power plants, with even members of the ruling coalition saying an extension is no longer taboo.

The German government on Monday said it would await the outcome of a new “stress test” of the national electric grid before determining whether to stick with the long-promised nuclear phaseout by year’s end.

The results are due in the coming weeks and could mark a pivotal moment for Europe’s biggest economy, where households and businesses are bracing for a difficult winter.

The war in Ukraine has sent energy costs soaring and Russia has been squeezing gas deliveries to Europe, thwarting German efforts to fill stores before the cold weather arrives and raising the prospect of emergency energy-saving measures.

It is a dramatically different picture from earlier this year, when an initial stress test in March found that Germany’s remaining nuclear power plants were not needed to ensure energy security.

After the first report, the government maintained the plants would go offline by Dec 31.

Merkel’s Legacy

Germany, under then-chancellor Angela Merkel, decided to definitively quit nuclear power in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan, a move that had widespread public support.

Within Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s three-party coalition government, his Social Democrats and their Green party partners have long argued against changing course – citing the costs, technical issues and safety concerns in keeping the nuclear plants going.

Supporters of the nuclear farewell have also pointed out that atomic power accounts for only around six percent of Germany’s electricity supply and can contribute little to resolving the main problem, which is a lack of gas for heating.

But with the energy outlook rapidly worsening – Russia’s Gazprom has said it will reduce gas flows through the vital Nord Stream 1 pipeline to 20 percent of capacity from Wednesday – Merkel’s own conservatives are among the loudest voices calling for a rethink.

Countries like France that are persisting with nuclear energy may have the right idea, opposition leader Friedrich Merz from the centre-right CDU has said.

He suggested that nuclear power can replace some of the gas used for electricity production.

“I’m predicting that the lifetime of the nuclear power plants will be prolonged at the end of the year,” Merz recently told public broadcaster ZDF.

Green Shift

Scholz’s junior coalition partner, the liberal FDP, is also turning up the pressure.

“The run-time should be extended until spring 2024,” senior FDP member Michael Kruse told the daily Bild.

“We must use everything that can contribute to electricity production. Nuclear power plants are part of that.”

Katrin Goering-Eckardt, deputy president of the German parliament, signalled that the mood was shifting even among her Green party, which has opposed atomic power for more than 40 years.

Nothing should be ruled out “if it comes to the point that we have a real emergency situation, that hospitals can’t operate… then we have talk about it”, she told public broadcaster ARD.

Social Democratic party co-leader, Saskia Esken, on Monday also said there should be no red lines when it comes to tackling the energy crisis.

In the Bavarian city of Munich, local officials from the SPD and Greens have urged the federal government to keep the region’s Isar 2 plant, one of the three remaining nuclear plants, online for longer.

Munich mayor Dieter Reiter said the extension could be made possible by not running the plant at full capacity, allowing the nuclear fuel rods to last longer.

Should Germany abandon its nuclear exit, it would not be the government’s first energy U-turn since the start of the Ukraine war.

In a move described as “bitter” by Green Economy Minister Robert Habeck, Germany recently decided to restart mothballed coal-fired power plants to preserve gas.

But Habeck insists Germany remains committed to the renewable energy transition, and is still on track to phase out highly polluting coal by 2030. – AFP / pic Bloomberg