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German ministers quizzed over nuclear phase out 'deception'

April 26, 2024

A political magazine alleged that the Economy Ministry hid expert advice supporting the extension of Germany's remaining nuclear power plants. Two ministers defended their decision to a parliamentary committee.

The cooling tower of the Emsland nuclear power plant seen in 2022
Germany's last three nuclear power plants were switched off in April last yearImage: Ina Fassbender/AFP

Two German ministers on Friday defended their handling of the extension of Germany's three remaining nuclear power stations during the 2022-23 energy crisis, after a media report alleged the process was bungled.

Cicero magazine reported a day earlier that officials from the environmentally friendly Green Party had acted in a "deceptive" manner by ignoring expert advice and seeking to proceed with the phase-out of nuclear energy, which had been planned since 2011.

The government was keen to shore up energy supplies after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which saw Germany ween itself of Russian natural gas.

Report alleges experts were ignored

Following a court ruling, the weekly magazine obtained documents from the Economy Ministry related to plans to extend the life of Germany's last nuclear power stations. The documents contained emails, memos, meeting minutes and letters.

The magazine alleged that top officials in the Green Party were keen to avoid extending the life of the nuclear power plants due to their decadeslong policy commitment to phasing out nuclear power.

Cicero alleged that experts paid by the ministries, who had argued that the nuclear facilities were still safe to operate, were ignored and that sometimes their assessments were deliberately falsified.

The magazine also accused Economy Minister Robert Habeck of misleading the public during a TV interview in February 2022 when he denied that extending the life of the nuclear facilities would help Germany's energy needs during the winter.

Habeck's viewpoint conflicted with advice from experts who said that nuclear power could help save the use of gas and avoid a power crisis, just as Germany was trying to cut its dependence on Russian energy.

Several months later, the government agreed to extend the life of the last three nuclear plants by several months.

Germany's last three nuclear power plants — Isar 2 in Bavaria, Emsland in Lower Saxony, and Neckarwestheim 2 in Baden-Württemberg — were finally switched off in April last year.

Is shutting down nuclear energy a mistake?

How did the ministers defend themselves?

After addressing the Bundestag's energy committee, Habeck said his department had examined the possible extension of the nuclear plants at a very early stage.

He said the operators had initially said the existing fuel elements could only be used until the end of the current year.

Habeck referred to a letter from the energy firm Eon in February 2022, which mentioned that the fuel elements would have likely burned out by the end of 2022.

The operators later said the elements could be used up to five months longer, before extending their estimate further, he added.

At the time, Habeck's Economy Ministry had argued that Germany needed a replacement for Russian national gas, mostly used for heating, rather than electricity, which the nuclear plants provided.

Environment Minister Steffi Lemke, meanwhile, insisted that her department had presented all events in a "transparent and comprehensible" manner.

The Green Party lawmaker emphasized that the assessments were "oriented at all times towards the nuclear safety of our country."

Robert Habeck at a Greens event in 2022
Habeck's Greens had long called for the phase out of nuclear power Image: Ina Fassbender/AFP

Germany's conservative opposition cries foul

The conservative faction in the Bundestag has called for further hearings from Habeck and Lemke over the reports.

"There is still a reasonable assumption that Habeck's ministry did the opposite of what he had publicly announced. Distortion of facts instead of open-ended examination," Andreas Jung, the center-right CDU's spokesman for climate protection and energy, told Germany's dpa news agency.

"Suspicion is getting stronger that the decision to phase out nuclear power was not done openly, but was determined from the outset. That people were tricked and deceived." Andreas Lenz, the political spokesman for the CSU — the CDU's Bavarian sister party — on energy and sustainability, said.

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mm/wmr (AFP, dpa)