Why Germany Won’t Keep Its Nuclear Plants Open
Since the Bucha massacre was made public, Germany has financed the Russian government by paying nearly $1.5B for its gas1.
While Putin and his army destroy Ukraine and commit genocide, the EU has been flamboyant in its rhetoric and lukewarm in its actions. It has declared eternal friendship with Ukraine, and EU countries have increased their defense budgets and sent weapons to Ukraine, but they wouldn’t fly their planes into the country, and ended up not giving them at all.
This duplicity is nowhere more obvious than in Germany. As the biggest economy in the EU, its actions have the biggest impact. It has given weapons to Ukraine, promised an increase in its military budget to 2% of GDP, and stopped the inauguration of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that directly connects to Russia under the sea. But it keeps consuming oil and gas from Russia, directly financing the war it’s portraying itself to try stopping.
This matters a lot, because oil and gas represents about 35% of Russia’s federal budget. And one of the biggest consumers of all of that is Germany.
This is for gas:
And this is for oil:
So Germany is a big source of income for Russia. Conversely, Germany depends a lot on Russia, which provides 55% of Germany’s gas, 34% of its oil, and 53% of its hard coal. And fossil fuels provide the lion’s share of Germany’s energy needs:
In summary, about 80% of Germany’s energy comes from fossil fuels, and about 50% of that comes from Russia. Germany needs to break this dependency.
Coal is easy to diversify, because it has to be transported by boats and trains, which can be from anywhere. So Germany will do it—by August. It has already shrunk its coal dependency on Russia by half, cutting its Russian imports from 50% of all its coal imports to 25%
Oil is a bit harder, but the oil from tankers can be sourced from outside of Russia. Germany’s share of Russian oil has already dropped from 35% to 25%, and the country hopes to stop all its Russian oil purchases by the end of the year.
Gas is a different matter. 55% of Germany’s gas comes from Russia. Germany hopes to cut that to 25% during the summer, but that will come too late. And maybe by next winter the share of Russian gas will rise again. Germany wants to build its first LNG plant (liquified natural gas), but LNG gas is more expensive than direct pipelines and its volume is lower. Since Germany can’t easily shift the source of its gas, maybe it should just consume less?
But in the last few decades, Germany has been consuming more and more gas, not less. You can see it in the growing share of green in the previous graph:
Despite being “green”, Germany has kept growing its gas consumption because renewable energy sources like wind replace coal, not natural gas2. So gas consumption has kept growing. Can it be reduced instead? It depends on the uses.
Reducing the consumption of heat is hard, but doable. As the International Energy Agency recommends, Germany could replace gas boilers with heat pumps3, or could simply ask citizens to make an effort.
But changing the source of electricity, from gas to other sources, would be even easier. About a third of German gas is used for electricity generation. Eliminating that would eliminate nearly all of Germany’s import of Russian gas4. And since Germany accounts for about 20% of Russia’s gas exports, it would create a dramatic hole in the budget of the Russian government.
If only Germany had a readily-available source of electricity…
The Nuclear Option
Germany has done an amazing job with renewable energies.
In 2020, about 50% of Germany’s electricity came from renewable sources: 27% wind, 10% solar, 9.3% biomass, 3.7% hydroelectricity. About a third was fossil fuels (24% coal, 12% natural gas), and 12% was nuclear.
Which means you only need to replace 12% of the electricity produced in Germany—from gas to something else—to eliminate nearly all the gas imported from Russia.
The capacity of generating electricity is measured in megawatts (MW). Germany has 20,000 MW of installed nuclear energy, but they closed 90% of that after Fukushima (27 reactors). The last three reactors still in operation are slated to close on December 31st, 2022.
The country has 31,000 MW of installed capacity for natural gas. But although it sounds like 50% more than for nuclear energy, that’s not the case.
Nuclear energy is very expensive to build but very cheap to operate. The construction of the reactors and all the safety protocols required are very expensive. But nuclear plants don’t use much Uranium and don’t require many people to operate. Since nuclear plants are so expensive to build and so cheap to operate, they are always turned on.
Gas is the opposite. The fixed costs are low, but burning gas is very expensive, so gas power plants tend to be the last ones to be turned on; only during peak demand.
That’s why the six nuclear reactors that were operating in Germany in 2021 generated 80% as much power as all the gas power plants (purple vs grey on the chart below).
If you turned back on all the nuclear reactors, you could eliminate nearly all the need for gas electricity—and some coal too, which is quite polluting.
Conversely, if you closed the three nuclear reactors remaining and covered that through gas, you’d need to increase your gas burning for electricity by 30%, which could increase gas from Russia by an equivalent amount5.
Put in another way: turning all the German nuclear reactors back on could approximately stop gas imports from Russia. Shutting the remaining ones down could increase the dependency on Russian gas by about 30%6.
So why doesn’t Germany do it?
Why Will Germany Still Close Its Remaining Nuclear Plants
If you read the news trying to understand this, what you get is stuff like this:
“We have again examined very carefully whether a longer operation of the nuclear power plants would help us in this foreign policy situation. The answer is negative – it would not help us.”—German Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck, March 8th 2022.
Who made that assessment? The economy and environment ministries, both held by the Green party. Green is good, but it’s also more focused on the environment than on geopolitics. Maybe it’s biased more towards the environment than it should be in a geopolitical crisis? Worth digging into it more.
1. Legal approvals
They would need to change the law. The previous law was changed to close the nuclear power plants after Fukushima. Reopening plants should be treated like opening new ones, and since they’re old, they wouldn’t pass the safety tests without heavy investment.
This is the government, saying they can’t do something because the law says they can’t. Somebody should tell them how the government works.
According to the text, they might even need a constitutional amendment. I am no expert in German law, but this strikes me as an unlikely requirement that would nevertheless be doable. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Maybe there isn’t a will?
A tip can be gathered a few paragraphs later, when the ministries suggest that Russians could sabotage nuclear reactors. They use such a remote possibility as an argument against all nuclear, seemingly forgetting that:
Germany is surrounded by other countries with nuclear power.
Russian sabotage would be an act of war.
If Germany is at the point where Russia is attacking its nuclear power plants, I sure hope it’s not in a position where it depends on Russian gas.
This is what they say: The existing nuclear reactors should have passed a lengthy security inspection in 2019, which they didn’t pass since they would close at the end of 2022. They would need to pass such an inspection, and it takes a long time. Furthermore, since now they’ve changed the goalpost and the new safety standards are state of the art, these reactors would probably not pass these safety tests. To keep the reactors open in 2023, Germany would need to accept accelerating the risk assessment and maybe living without some retrofittings.
I’m lucky to understand the risks that they’re talking about since I studied them in grad school7. They’re talking about a baseline risk of serious accident of around 0.001%8, or one in 100,000 years9. These retrofittings might further reduce risks by a bit. Let’s assume 5%. That means the retrofittings might reduce the risk of a serious accident by 0.00005%.
Now compare that with the reality of sending hundreds of millions of dollars every day to your blood-thirsty, psychopath neighbor who is threatening you with nuclear war every time you lift a finger.
Yes, of course Germany can afford to take some more time to pass these inspections!
The document concedes that it would be easy to save up some fuel during the 2022 summer to use during the winter.
The reactors would then need new fuel, which would take 12-15 months to arrive, and would require a doubling of manufacturing capacity. They fear the new fuel would only arrive in the Fall of 2023. They imply that this is very problematic. I don’t understand the problem. I also don’t believe that in a situation of crisis, the government can’t accelerate that further. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Maybe there isn’t a will?
4. Spare Parts
They also fear that some spare parts would be lacking because there is no further market in Germany for them. There are no details about this fear.
They forget that:
This is the type of problem you can throw money at.
There are people who used to work in these companies in the past that are still alive.
The German reactors are not unique. There are still over 100 reactors operating in Europe. Many of the parts needed for the German ones can probably be manufactured by companies that service these.
Which leads us to the next issue.
What they say: People have been retiring and no new ones have been trained, so it would be hard to get the people10.
I kid you not, this is the type of concern they have: “Argh, I would need to get some people out of retirement and train new people. But it takes so long to train them! Better pay Putin.”
The same logic that was valid for spare parts is valid here. Just throw money at this problem—just a fraction of the money you’re sending to Putin every day.
6. “Economic” Considerations
What they say, translated into human language:
With lack of clarity on spare parts and personnel, how can we commit to a reliable delivery or energy? We can’t be 100% confident11.
Also what about nuclear waste? We’d need to take care of that12.
And we’d need to expand the operations to 3-5 years because otherwise it doesn’t make economic sense to the companies running them. The government would need to step in and take over some of the risk13.
Lack of clarity? Of course! Then get working on improving it.
Nuclear waste? You’ve been operating 1,000 reactor years14. Six reactors for five years is an additional 3%. Is that changing nuclear waste management in any way? No.
An additional five years of operation? So what? Government risk? So what?
Now we’re getting to the truth. The ministries are not carrying out a cost-benefit of keeping the nuclear reactors open because of a military crisis. They simply don’t like nuclear energy. They don’t want to extend the nuclear reactors they’ve spent so much time fighting.
7. Energy Replacement
What they say: Until the new nuclear fuel is in place, we would make up for the shortage with more electricity coming from coal and gas.
Yes, you would. The main benefit of the nuclear reactors is that Germany would not depend on Russia starting in 2023.
In 2022, Germany would still depend on Russia. But it can use coal more than gas, thereby reducing the exposure to Russian gas in 2022 too. Maybe the ministries don’t want to replace dirty coal with cleaner gas?
Summary of the German Position
The document explaining Germany’s nuclear position reads as a long list of excuses of why it would be inconvenient to keep nuclear reactors open, forget about reopening old ones.
What is even more interesting is not what’s there, but what’s not there. This is not a cost-benefit analysis. It doesn’t explain the benefits of reopening the reactors, how much money would be saved, how much safer Germany would be, how much more it could defend its neighbors.
When you only pay attention to something’s costs, it means you simply don’t want to do it.
What do Germans think about it? 75% of them were in favor of the closure of nuclear plants before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but now 70% of them favor keeping them open. The government is running on inertia.
About 40% of Germany’s gas comes from Russia, for which it pays nearly $1B per week.
About 35% of Germany’s gas is used to generate electricity.
Eliminating German electricity from gas would thus nearly eliminate Germany’s purchase of Russian gas.
One way Germany could do it is by reopening nuclear power plants.
But it is not considering that. In fact, it doesn’t even want to keep its current nuclear reactors open.
Every argument it uses to defend the closure of the nuclear reactors betrays a lack of political will: you’d need to change laws, accept some risks, accelerate processes, pay up for fuel, people, and spare parts…
Conversely, there’s no analysis of benefits.
So why is there no political will? The most obvious hypothesis is that those in charge of this policy are the German Green Party, which has been fighting nuclear energy for decades. For them, it’s better to kill nuclear reactors than to fight Putin and help Ukraine.
They do that despite overwhelming support to keep the plants open.
As Sergej Sumlenny puts it:
So what can we do about it?
What Should the German Government Do
If they persist closing the reactors, they must explain why in much more detail, and have their claims checked by a neutral 3rd party (eg, the IAEA).
Changing their mind would be straightforward:
Get the workers back from retirement
Start training new ones asap
Talk with previous suppliers to get them back to producing what's needed
If you lack the workers or suppliers, hire / secure from across Europe
Talk with fuel providers to see everything that can be done to accelerate fuel replacement
Put together a budget to pay for all of this
Accept that you will be extending nuclear energy for a handful of years
Accept that you need to change the law, and maybe amend the constitution
What Can You Do
This is a political matter, which means it’s a matter of public opinion. The more people understand what’s happening in Germany, the more the position of the government will be untenable. Talk about it with your connections, especially if they’re German. Post it on social media. The more noise, the more likely the German government will need to take this seriously.
The price of one cubic meter (m3) of gas is about $1. Germany imported 56B m3 of natural gas from Russia last year, and has reduced that by 15%, for a current average of ~47B m3 per year. At $1/m3, that amounts to $47B over a year, or about $128 million per day. 11 days have passed since the Bucha massacre was made public, so Germany has spent $1.4B on Russian gas since the massacre was made public. These numbers are back-of-the-envelope, just to share the vast order of magnitude of Germany’s financing of Russia. I tried to find actuals, but couldn’t.
A boiler burns gas to heat air. A heat pump uses electricity to extract heat from the air and pumps out some hot air and some cold air. It turns out separating hot from cold is much more efficient than burning something to increase heat.
About 40% of Germany’s gas comes from Russia, and about 35% of Germany’s gas is used for electricity generation.
Since around 35% of Germany’s gas is spent on power plants, and about 40% of Germany’s gas comes from Russia now (which is the last resort given the situation), a 30% increase in gas spent on power plants would cause about the same increase in imports from Russia (if they had another option, they would already be using it).
I’m talking about orders of magnitude here.
I studied nuclear energy generation in my two MSc in Industrial Engineering.
One accident every 100,000 years of operation. This was the standard for nuclear reactors in the past, and appears to be the one that German reactors abided by. Look for Table 1 if you’re interested.
Nuclear energy experts go to great lengths to calculate these risks. For us, we don’t really care about the precision. The idea is that the baseline risk is extremely low, and the improvement from retrofittings has an even lower impact.
I’ll put the source translation here so you can easily see I’m not exaggerating, just simplifying their jargon: “The remaining operation of the nuclear power plants is also adjusted to the phase-out operation in terms of personnel. The human resources required for timely continued operation are no longer available and would first have to be built up again. Financial incentives would have to be used to mutually withdraw the socially acceptable staff reduction measures already agreed in individual contracts (return of partial retirement contracts) and additional new necessary personnel (e.g. in the area of specialist training for reactor drivers/shift supervisors) in at least a high double-digit number would have to be successively replaced and trained immediately. This requires several years of specialist training. The personnel planning of supervisory authorities and experts would also have to be adjusted in the short term, with the problem that there has been little training in recent years.”
Pasting again the source translated: “It cannot be estimated in advance whether the safety check will result in a greater need for retrofitting (see above) and how this can be dealt with in the short term, especially with regard to the timely availability of necessary spare parts and components. This may result in longer shutdown phases, which reduce the availability of the nuclear power plants and thus the benefits of the extension. This affects both the costs of continued operation and the energy management considerations with regard to additional electricity volumes. At the current time, time requirements and costs cannot be reliably estimated.”
“The costs for the disposal of additional quantities of radioactive waste would have to be taken into account in addition to the effort for continued operation. It is not foreseeable at which premiums the required liability insurance protection (coverage provision) could be obtained for an extended service operation, which has not yet been calculated after the end of 2022. According to the Atomic Energy Act, the operators of nuclear power plants must be fully liable for damage caused by German nuclear power plants and guarantee coverage of up to 2.5 billion euros, for which premiums are payable to the German nuclear reactor insurance association.” As a reminder, €2.5B is what the country pays Putin every few days in gas.
“The operators of the nuclear power plants have prepared themselves for the end of the use of nuclear energy and are committed to it. In the event that the state deems it necessary to continue to ensure security of supply in the current situation, they assume that in view of the financial effort this would only make sense from an economic point of view with a perspective of at least another three to five years. If the state decides to do this, the operators of the nuclear power plants have already informed BMWK and BMUV that the federal government should then assume a "quasi-owner" role, with full control and responsibility for investments, costs, yields and the scope of the depth on the safety and licensing side. In such a scenario, the nuclear power plants would be operated by the companies on a quasi-government basis.”
20 reactors for about 50 years.