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Berlin locuta – causa finita? Facts and insights concerning the “German Stress Test” and the remaining three German NPPs

Sep 20, 2022

Arnulf Nöding, Director of Governmental Affairs Germany, Urenco Global

“Roma locuta (est) causa finita (est)” – Rome has decided, the matter is settled. This is a legal principle that comes from canon law and which states: The decision of the highest instance [originally: the Pope, today maybe German Federal Minister for Economics and Climate, Robert Habeck] is always legally binding, no legal remedies [and no room for further discussion] remain.

With regards to the second, but once again more stringent, stress test conducted by the German Transmission Grid Operators (TSO), I am currently picking the consequences apart a little more… and I have my doubts.

The obvious facts: 

The future of the three remaining German NPPs has been decided by the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Climate based on a so-called “stress test” carried out by the German TSO

  • NPP Emsland, owned by RWE is expected to shutdown as foreseen on 31 December 2022.
  • NPP Neckarwestheim 2, owned by EnBW, will remain as a “Crisis Reserve for Grid security and Re-dispatching” until 30 April 2023.
  • NPP Isar 2, owned by Preussenelektra, will also be maintained as a “Crisis Reserve for Grid security and Re-dispatching”, again until 30 April 2023.
  • At the same time, there will be no stretched nor extended operations (Streckbetrieb).
  • Nor will any fresh fuel be ordered.
  • And there are no plans to reactivate the three NPPs which were shut down on 31 December 2021 (Grafenrheinfeld, Brockdorf, Phillipsburg 2)
    … for the time being.

Reading between the lines, what does this really mean? As a first conclusion, I would say that nothing has really been settled!

Without nuclear power, Germany will be going dark!

  • That’s what it says in this somewhat “Solomon-like resolution” produced by the four German TSOs. German Grid Operators need these NPPs but for political reasons they have to call it a “crisis reserve” in order to avoid any hick-ups in the Federal Governmental Coalition of Socialists, Greens and Liberals.
  • The “Solomonic element” of this stress test is the ability to fulfil all main requirements.
    • NPP Emsland (RWE) should be shut down as planned. This means that the main demands of the Greens requiring completion of the phase-out, especially in the state of Lower Saxony, are thus fulfilled and the green supporters are satisfied.
    • RWE will be no longer a nuclear power plant operator – in line with the strategy of RWE.
    • “Shut down” doesn’t mean that the NPP will loose its licence to operate but it will lose permission to produce electricity – this may say sound strange, but this is what the German Atomic Law states.
  • The German TSOs have thus cleverly asserted themselves against the instruction of their “boss”, the (green) head of the Federal Network Agency Mr Müller, who had supposedly ordered an end to all plants by 31 December 2022.
  • The Ministry of Economics and Climate, (BMWK) has agreed to this, because no one wants to be blamed and shamed politically if this approach fails in Germany in winter – which is actually quite a clever tactic. But behind closed doors, the BMWK is counting considerably on the restart of the French “NPP fleet” (where currently 32 of 58 reactors are offline or in limited operation due, in part, to issues with cooling water levels and high temperatures).
  • The discussion will continue over the coming months and nuclear power remains a generation option for Germany, in terms of a crisis which no one knows if it will happen or even how long it could last!

The upcoming elections in the State of Lower Saxony (LS), the homeland of the German Anti-Nuclear movement, scheduled for 9 October may have dominated recent decisions and recommendations

  • Lower Saxony (LS) is the homeland of Anti-Nuclear movement in Germany (tremendous fights against Gorleben as the high-level waste final repository site and Konrad Low-Level Waste/Intermediate-Level Waste repository site combined with a lot of wind-farmers who are not really pro-nuclear)
  • Current polls put the Greens at around 20%. Therefore, anything in the new State Government seems possible, from AMPEL, to a black-green and to a red-green coalition.
  • The “Solomonic element” fulfils the main demands of the Greens regarding completion of the nuclear phase-out especially in Lower Saxony, as well as RWE current strategy – so this is a gift for both.
  • The following obstacles remain as anti-nuclear blocks in Lower Saxony (and which can be read in the LS Green Party’s election manifesto)
    • The planned intermediate packaging storage for ILW/ LLW in Würgassen (which is needed to avoid burdening the residents of the KONRAD final repository site, while packaging of nuclear waste on the same site …).
    • The Framatome ANF Lingen site (which, by law, has an unlimited license to operate like Gronau) should be closed.
    • The KONRAD site (which the LS Greens also want to close. Here they are aiming for a procedure similar to the search for a final repository for HLW )
    • HLW transports to AAHAUS Site through Lower Saxony should be prohibited.

The substitution options for the NPPs and recommendations for the German electricity market put forward in the stress test are – I am sorry to say – a hoax. For example:

  • The stress test recommended using more biogas for electricity generation.  Even though we know that there are no conditions to pool, aggregate and use the “biogas to electricity” option as a 2GW virtual power plant for the time being.
  • A significant volume of LNG gas is to be shipped in and contracts have been signed. These volumes are expected to suffice, also for power generation in neighbouring countries and/or their supply. Whilst, yes, contracts have been signed, for the time being Germany does not have any LNG station in operation – they are only planned!
  • Coal, primarily for thermal power plants, is supplied across Germany via both river barges and the German railway system.  Given that snow and ice are mainly feeding the Rhine with meltwater and that over the past 10 years there has not been enough snow and ice in the Alpes, water levels will remain low until May next year for transport by barge. In this case, coal suppliers will have to switch to the German Railway system along the river Rhine. This fits with a statement by the head of strategy of the German Railway who recently stated: “… – no more mouse tail will pass through the railway network in North Rheine-Westphalia and along the river Rhine because the infrastructure, especially in this region is economically used up (sic!)”
  • Conversion of gas-fired power plants from gas firing to oil/diesel firing (fuel switch). This is clearly a sensible option in view of the impending start of sanctions on Russian oil as of 1 January 2023 and OPEC’s announcement that it will cut production. A Great story from Berlin: Vattenfall has just completed the conversion of its oil-fired peak boiler for district heating in one of Berlin’s districts shifting from oil to gas because local residents had lobbied for the conversion due to climate protection reasons in city centre.
  • NPP Emsland can be shut down in the north because in any case of emergency, the stress test drew attention to the use of so-called “power barges” in the river Elbe, i.e. floating power plants that are primarily operated with HEAVY OIL. I’m sure we will see the soot flare in Berlin when they start up….
  • The TSO recommends expanding renewables by 10GW in the next two years. But there are no blue collar workers avaible to construct this infrastructure, no licences to build/ operate, no towers and blades being produced due to lack of material;
  • etc.

As a result, the German Energy “Leitmotiv” for the next five months will be dominated by two core statements and this is written at the end of the BMWK paper: “… we can do it…” (Angela Merkel, former Chacellor)…complemented by  “… whatever it takes… “ (according to Robert Habeck, Minister of Economic and Climate Protection)?

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