Gas crisis reignites Germany’s nuclear power debate

BERLIN — The prospect of gas shortages this winter has triggered a tussle over nuclear power within Germany’s governing coalition.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD) and the traditionally anti-nuclear Greens of Economy and Climate Minister Robert Habeck oppose any delay to the scheduled switching off Germany’s three remaining nuclear power plants by the end of this year. Yet liberal Free Democrats (FDP), which are also in Scholz’s coalition, have joined the conservative opposition in calling for just such a delay.

Christian Dürr, head of the FDP group in parliament, explained why in a tweet Tuesday: “Putin remains unpredictable. We should take precautions: stop generating electricity from gas, extend the life of nuclear power plants and examine gas production in the North Sea.”

“Safe supply is the top priority,” he added. “We have to exhaust all possibilities for this. Anyone who talks about cold showers and warm sweaters in these weeks misunderstands the seriousness of the situation.”

Germany’s dependence on Russian gas imports has left it vulnerable to pressure from the Kremlin. Russia has threatened to turn off the tap, and the closure of the key Nord Stream pipeline for maintenance this week has intensified fears of a winter fuel crisis.

Dürr’s mention of cold showers was a swipe at Habeck, who has been preparing Germans for sacrifices during the upcoming cold months, suggesting they take shorter hot showers and heat fewer rooms.

Dürr’s party boss, Finance Minister Christian Lindner, has been arguing for weeks that keeping Germany’s nuclear plants running a little longer should not be “ruled out categorically.” He suggests the Green’s opposition to the idea is ideological and should be discarded given the new realities of Moscow’s energy blackmail.

“In view of the current situation, we should take a pragmatic, non-ideological view,” agreed FDP lawmaker Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, a prominent voice on the war in Ukraine. “We know that the [nuclear] plants won’t run forever but just at this moment, when it’s a matter of providing the population with the energy it needs, we shouldn’t be ideological.”

Germany shut down three of its six nuclear power stations last year and is due to close the remaining trio by the end of 2022. That’s in line with the decision by then-Chancellor Angela Merkel to phase out nuclear power following the 2011 accident at Japan’s Fukushima plant.

Friedrich Merz, leader of the opposition Christian Democrats (CDU) is exploiting the energy policy cracks in the coalition. “We need energy! Some colleagues in SPD and FDP also see it that way, but it fails because of the Greens,” he said on television last week.

Putting it more bluntly, Alexander Dobrindt, parliamentary leader of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, lumped the Greens together with Russian President Vladimir Putin, accusing them of willfully putting Germany’s prosperity at risk. “Putin turns off Germany’s gas and the Greens turn off nuclear power. This virtually provokes a blackout in winter,” the Christian Social Union (CSU) legislator told German media this week.

It’s complicated

The issue is not that straightforward, economists say.

“This seems like a sham debate,” contended Jens Südekum, professor of international economics at Düsseldorf’s Heinrich Heine University and an advisor to the economy and climate ministry.

“The figures tell us that only 16 percent of the gas has so far been used for electricity generation, while process heat [used in industrial production] and heating account for more than 80 percent, and that’s where the game is decided,” Südekum said. “Nuclear power plants won’t help us there, because you can’t heat with them.”

Habeck echoed that assessment Tuesday: Germany has “a heating problem, not an electricity problem,” he said during a trip to Vienna.

Claudia Kemfert, an energy economist at the German Institute for Economic Research, gave four reasons why nuclear can’t come to Germany’s rescue if Putin cuts off the gas.

“First, the plants’ licenses have expired — you would have to amend the Atomic Energy Act to extend them. That is not feasible in the short time available,” she said. “Secondly, the safety inspections have been suspended in 2019 for the reason that the plants will be taken off the grid at the end of the year. So, they would have to be tested again, which is also not possible in this rush.”

Thirdly, fuel for the reactors would have to be purchased taking up more time and, most importantly, “nuclear power plants produce 6 percent of electricity and, according to various studies, can only replace 1 percent of gas consumption,” Kemfert concluded.

Such concerns won’t stop the opposition — and parts of the government — from keeping the nuclear debate alive.

“We shouldn’t rob ourselves of the opportunity to keep our nuclear power plants running in order to save gas in electricity generation,” opposition leader Merz said this week. “I say: Bite the bullet, dear Greens … Do it for Germany!”

Hans von der Burchard contributed reporting.

Gas crisis reignites Germany’s nuclear power debate

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