Germany is sticking to its long-held plan of shutting down the country's three remaining nuclear power plants this year but keeping the option of reactivating two of them in case of an energy shortage in the coming months, officials said Monday.
The announcement follows the publication of a much-anticipated stress test that examined how Germany's power grid will cope with a possible electricity squeeze due to the energy crisis Europe is facing.
Like other European countries, Germany is scrambling to ensure the lights stay on and homes stay warm this winter despite the reduction in natural gas flows from Russia amid the war in Ukraine.
The government has already announced numerous measures including the import of liquefied natural gas from other suppliers, while urging citizens to conserve as much energy as possible.
But there were concerns that Germany's power grid, which is central to the European network, could be heavily strained if consumers switch to electric heaters in the winter and strong demand from neighboring countries means energy exports rise.
Germany's opposition parties have called for the country's nuclear plants to be kept online, with some lawmakers also suggesting shuttered ones be reopened and new reactors built. Some members of a small pro-business party that’s part of the governing coalition have argued in favor of running all three remaining reactors for as long as possible.
Economy and Energy Minister Robert Habeck, a member of the environmentalist Greens party that has long been opposed to nuclear power, acknowledged that several factors could come together to place a severe strain on the continent’s grid this winter. These include problems with France's nuclear power plants, drought hampering hydropower generation in the Alps and Norway, and problems shipping coal across Europe due to low water levels in rivers.
“We can’t rely securely on there being enough power plants available to stabilize the electricity network in the short term if there are grid shortages in our neighboring countries,” he said.
Grid operators examined what would occur in a worst-case scenario, where a harsh winter coincides with an unexpected shutdown of French nuclear plants and a sharp rise in electricity demand. The projected result was hours-long blackouts for millions of Germans as transmission lines struggle to cope with required electricity flows.
To help prevent this from happening, Germany will keep two reactors — Isar 2 in Bavaria and Neckarwestheim north of Stuttgart — on standby until mid-April next year, Habeck said. A third plant, Emsland near the Dutch border, will be powered down as planned in December.
Opposition lawmaker Jens Spahn of the center-right Christian Democrats accused Habeck of being driven by anti-nuclear ideology, noting that the Emsland plant is located in a state that’s holding regional elections next month.
Environmentalists, meanwhile, warned the government not to renege on its promise to phase out nuclear power by leaving the door open for an extension of the plants’ operating life.
Habeck insisted there would be no long-term reversal in Germany’s commitment to end nuclear power.
“The nuclear plants won’t be equipped with new fuel rods,” he said. “There will be no decision to build new atomic power plants. That would be absurd because this technology — look to France — is part of the problem.”
Habeck also said Russian gas is no longer a factor in Germany's energy calculations, and that it was no surprise Russia's state-controlled energy giant Gazprom didn't resume supplies through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline after halting them for maintenance last week.
“The only thing one can rely on from Russia is lies,” he said.
Measures taken by the government in recent months, including the painful decision to reactivate some coal-fired power plants, would ensure Germany has enough energy to get through the winter, said Habeck.
“Maybe not all of those in positions of responsibility can do so, but the German population can sleep deeply and easily,” he said.