Shutting down Germany's nuclear power plants is going to be atrociously expensive. Experts also doubt the funds set aside will be enough to cover the costs of scrapping the plants and their radioactive waste.
The decision to move away from nuclear energy is a done deal in Germany, where all nuclear power plants are intended to be offline by 2022. It's a political decision that will cost billions of euros, while the expansion of renewable energy is already pushing up electricity rates.
It also remains unclear exactly how much it will cost to dismantle the power plants after they've been mothballed. Experts are certain that the 34 billion euros set aside by plant operators for this purpose will not be enough to do the job.
The government officially lists nine nuclear plants as providing electricity for Germany's power grid. Eight additional reactors were already switched off in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan. There are also 16 power stations currently undergoing the long shut-down process.
In total, there are at least 33 facilities that will need to be dismantled and whose contaminated scrap will have to be disposed of.
Aside from the costs involved, there is also the question of where to store the spent nuclear fuel. The federal government calculated in April 2013 that the selection of a site for this purpose over the next 15 years would cost two billion euros.
Even before Fukushima, Germany's nuclear operators were building reserves to finance the dismantling of their reactors. However, they were planning for the reactors to remain in operation for longer, leaving more time for the entire process.
The German Atomic Forum (DAtF) estimates that the reserves total around 34 billion euros. Reports indicate that 18 billion lie with the provider Eon, 10 billion with RWE and 3.6 billion with Vattenfall.
Since the dismantling process is now set to begin earlier and be carried out faster, it's questionable whether these reserves will be sufficient.
Energy experts say the true figure needs to be much higher. RWE calculates that closing a single nuclear plant in Mülheim-Kärlich in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate will cost 750 million euros. Even the anti-nuclear Green party in Germany's parliament has acknowledged that a much higher sum will be needed to decommission the plants.
Problems also emerge when it comes to the availability of the 34 billion euros that have accumulated. This capital is not sitting in a bank, ready to be accessed. The plant operators have mostly invested it. In RWE's case, for example, the money has largely been put toward plants in the Netherlands and in Great Britain.
Who will pay?
Furthermore, RWE is understandably not willing to lose any money in the nuclear energy sector, as the energy company's lawsuit in the case of a temporary decommissioning of its Biblis nuclear power plant showed. In a final appeal, RWE won the case, opening the possibility for the company to file for compensation. Industry insiders say damages could total 187 million euros.
Thanks to Germany's shift on energy policy, the country's nuclear providers, who were counting on longer life spans for their reactors, suddenly find themselves with thinner financial reserves. Some politicians suspect that if a provider were to go bankrupt, it might be able to use the money it has set aside for purposes other than disposing of its facilities.
Setting up a public fund is seen as one option for ensuring that money is available to decommission the remaining plants, but it's a move that could bring further difficulties for the companies involved. As things stand now, RWE would have to take on additional debt in order to afford the payments into a fund of this sort.
Dismantling Germany's nuclear power plants will devour billions - quite possibly many more than previously estimated. And the question remains: Who will ultimately foot the bill?
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