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Germany: Dispute over nuclear 'reserve' deepens

September 7, 2022

The operators of the Isar 2 reactor accused Economic Affairs Minister Robert Habeck of expecting the impossible. Habeck, meanwhile, suggested they had not understood his plan.

Nuclear power plant Isar 2
Habeck said that Preussenelektra's letter was also confusing because surely the company had an interest in keeping the power plant onlineImage: Guenter Hofer/SchwabenPress/picture alliance

The back and forth over whether Germany will extend the lifespans of its three remaining nuclear power plants continued on Wednesday with deputy chancellor Robert Habeck accusing one of the plant's operators of not understanding the government's plan.

Habeck, whose portfolio incorporates energy policy, announced plans to keep two of Germany's three power stations online in the coming winter, repeatedly referring to them as an "emergency reserve," on Monday. For the senior member of Germany's fervently anti-nuclear Green Party, the announcement cannot have been comfortable. 

This prompted the operator of one of the two reactors to question what Habeck had meant, given that nuclear power plants can take weeks to switch on or off and cannot be used to plug intermittent gaps in electricity provision. 

The plan "to send two of the three operational reactors into a cold reserve status, to power them up if and when necessary, is not technically feasible," German magazine Spiegel quoted PreussenElektra boss Guido Knott as saying in a letter to Habeck's ministry. 

"I have noted the letter from PreussenEelektra with some astonishment," responded Habeck.

He suggested that the company had not understood the term "emergency reserve," which he said would not entail a closing and then re-starting of the plant. Rather, the plan meant only that the government would "decide at some point whether the power plants are needed or not. This could happen in December, January or February."

"This fact seems to have passed the technicians at PreussenElektra by," Habeck said. 

The minister added that he had already received a letter from PreussenElektra in August that said if the government wished to prolong the lifespan of Germany's nuclear plants for a longer period of time, the Isar 2 plant would need to go into standstill mode for a period of time in order to accommodate that wish.

Habeck argued that these two letters seemed to contradict each other.

Opposition says nuclear stance is 'madness'

Germany has been phasing out nuclear energy since 2011, and the last three plants were due to go offline at the end of 2022. However, this plan has been complicated by anenergy crisis brought on by dwindling supplies of Russian gas.

On Monday, Habeck's ministry announced that two of the plants would remain online in "emergency reserve" for a few weeks in the winter.A government-commissioned report said there was no point in trying to prolong the use the country's current nuclear plants for a longer period, as the phaseout process had already gone too far to be walked back.

Despite that, opposition politicians on Wednesday criticized the government's refusal to reconsider nuclear energy in a time of crisis as "madness."

Habeck's 'insolvency' comments also attracting scrutiny

The deputy chancellor was also under fire on Wednesday following an appearance on a prime time talk show in which his critics alleged he confused insolvency with companies halting production. 

Asked whether he anticipated a "wave of insolvencies" in winter, Habeck had responded: "No I do not. I can imagine that some branches might temporarily halt production though." 

He said certain businesses that relied on people having disposable income at hand, such as organic food stores or florists or bakeries, might be forced to halt operations if demand sank. "Then they are not insolvent automatically, but perhaps they stop selling." 

Opposition politicians, including Merz, tried to pounce on the comments during Wednesday's Bundestag budget debate. But Habeck's ministry responded with a lengthy statement later in the day saying he had not confused the issues, but rather had wanted to point out that a more pressing danger than insolvency could be some businesses being forced to close their doors in a bid to avoid insolvency. 

"Focusing solely on insolvency" would be too myopic, the ministry argued.

es/msh (dpa, Reuters)

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