Opinion

Even in Gas Crisis, Germany Refuses Nuclear Power

Better to burn coal.

Germany coal power plant
Coal power plant outside Hamm in Westphalia, Germany (Draheim/Hans Blossey)

Germans are urged to ration gas. “We are in the midst of a gas crisis,” according to economy and climate minister Robert Habeck. “From now on, gas is a scarce asset.” Russia has reduced supplies to what used to be its largest customer in the EU in anger over the bloc’s support for Ukraine.

All consumers, whether in industry, in public institutions or private households, should reduce their gas consumption as much as possible, so that we can make it through the winter.

Habeck is auctioning gas supplies to industry to incentivize conservation, providing €15 billion in credit to pay for non-Russian gas supplies and reopening mothballed coal power plants.

If Russia cut off gas completely, Habeck fears the economic impact would be “worse than the COVID pandemic.” The Green party leader has likened a Russian gas stop to a “Lehman Brothers effect.” The American investment bank’s collapse triggered the 2008 financial crisis.

Yet even now, Habeck will not keep Germany’s three remaining nuclear plants, which provide 5 percent of its electricity, online. They are slated to be retired at the end of the year.

Inexplicable

I’m in favor of nuclear power anyway. It’s clean, safe, and allows us to become independent of oil- and gas-exporting dictators.

I don’t know when we decided we could live with the certainty of eight million fossil-fuel deaths per year, but not with the risk of a nuclear accident, the worst of which — Chernobyl — killed at most 4,000 people. But I’m happy to save the debate about whether or not to build more nuclear plants for another day.

Switching off plants, though, that are only a few decades old, and on the brink of economic calamity (Habeck’s words) and people freezing to death (which happened across Central Europe when Russia last cut off gas supplies in 2008-9), is inexplicable.

Gas crisis

Habeck said German gas reserves are filled to 58 percent, and he’s not on track to meet his 90-percent target for December.

Before the war, Germany got between 10 and 15 percent of its electricity, and a quarter of its total energy (including heating), from burning gas. It has almost no domestic production. Germany is the world’s largest importer of natural gas by volume. 55 percent of German gas is imported from Russia. Norway, with 30 percent, is the second supplier.

Russia has more than halved gas supplies through the underwater Nord Stream pipeline in recent weeks, blaming maintenance. It has also cut off or reduced deliveries to Denmark, Poland and the Netherlands, which normally reexport gas to Germany.

Firing up old coal plants reduces the dependence on gas for electricity, but not for heating. That affects households, but also chemical and steel industries, which cannot operate without gas. (Long term, their alternative is green hydrogen — but that requires more green energy.)

Burning coal, moreover, is the most polluting way to generate electricity. Nuclear plants emit zero greenhouse gasses.

Accounting wizardry

Habeck argues keeping nuclear plants in operation would be unsafe and not cost-effective.

Those are paper realities. Germany’s nuclear laws are so strict, its plants are probably the safest in the world. To keep the three remaining plants in operation, they would need to be relicensed and meet the latest safety standards, which have been updated since their last inspection in 2009. So if there’s a problem, it’s one the government itself created — and could waive. The plants surely can’t be safe until the end of 2022, and suddenly become unsafe on January 1, 2023?

As for cost-effectiveness, that argument is premised on acquiring new fuel rods for all three reactors but only keeping them online for a short time, so they couldn’t recuperate the costs. That’s accounting wizardry to set nuclear power up to fail.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung reports that current fuel rods can keep the largest of the three plants running into the summer 2023, and that the same plant could stay on the grid until 2028.

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