Germany's gas crisis generates nuclear dilemma for ruling Greens

German conservative politicians have revived debate on extending the life of the country's three remaining nuclear power plants, and polls show a rise in public support for the energy source in the face of a possible cut-off of Russian gas

di Riham Alkousaa and Andreas Rinke

Berlin - German conservative politicians have revived debate on extending the life of the country's three remaining nuclear power plants, and polls show a rise in public support for the energy source in the face of a possible cut-off of Russian gas. But an extension is highly sensitive for Germany's ruling Greens party, which grew out of the 1970s anti-nuclear movement. Germany's three remaining nuclear power plants are scheduled to be shut down by the end of the year after former chancellor Angela Merkel pledged to halt the use of nuclear electricity after the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011. The plants accounted for 6% of Germany's electricity production in the first quarter of 2022.

Debate over keeping the plants running began after Russia's invasion of Ukraine started on Feb. 24 and prompted Germany to decide to end its heavy reliance on Russian fossil fuel. Experts from Germany's environment and economy ministries said in March they did not recommend extending the plants' lifetime, citing legal, licensing and insurance challenges, the need for extensive and possibly costly safety checks and a lack of fuel rods to keep the plants running. An extension would not help the country's electricity output in the coming winter, they found, and the necessary investment and effort would only be justified if the plants' operations were extended for at least five more years until 2028. But falling Russian gas supplies to Germany through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, which prompted the government to reconnect on-reserve coal power plants to the grid, and the possibility of an extended outage of the pipeline following routine maintenance that is meant to be completed by July 21 have emboldened pro-nuclear voices in Germany and Europe.

The European Union will next week publish recommendations on how countries can cut gas demand to prepare for winter. A draft of the recommendations, seen by Reuters, said one option would be to postpone the shutdown of nuclear power plants or switch from gas generation to nuclear where possible. Last month, a poll by RTL/ntv broadcasters showed some 68% of Germans were in favour of reconsidering the country's nuclear exit. Before the start of the war in Ukraine, a ZDF poll had found only 40% of Germans supported extending the lifetime of nuclear power plants. But Germany's environment and economy ministries, both run by the Greens, this week said their assessment from March was still valid and that they had not reconsidered their position in light of concerns over gas supply security.

"ANTI-NUCLEAR-POWER PARTY"
Politicians of the conservative CDU/CSU opposition blame the Greens for the government's resistance to changing its position on the issue, saying it was purely ideological, citing the Greens' roots in the 1970s anti-nuclear movement: "The Greens prefer to rely on climate-damaging coal-fired power plants ... Inside, they are an anti-nuclear-power party," CDU General Secretary Mario Czaja said. Czaja said the government could obtain fuel rods from Australia and Canada to keep the plants running, adding he expected Economy Minister Robert Habeck to "move away from ideology": responding to the government's nuclear safety concerns, TUEV, a major provider of industrial testing and certification, said it was possible to continue operating the three remaining nuclear power plants from a safety point of view. "The plants are in a technically excellent condition," Joachim Buehler, managing director at TUEV, told Reuters, adding that an extensive check, which is usually done every 10 years, was necessary but could be done within a few months.

Calls for examining all energy options, including nuclear, are also rising within the ruling coalition of the Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, and the Free Democrat (FDP) liberals. Michael Kruse, the FDP parliamentary group's energy policy spokesperson said reduced supplies of gas for heating in winter could make consumers use more electric heating, in turn creating power shortages:"„This topic is very sensitive for some parties but the Russian aggression against Ukraine must convince all politicians to consider this issue without ideology and in a new way," Kruse told Reuters. The Greens still see nuclear power as a risky technology, the party's deputy parliamentary group leader Julia Verlinden said, citing the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters: "Nuclear power is expensive, inflexible and causes radioactive waste for which there is still no repository," Verlinden told Reuters. Timon Gremmels, energy policy coordinator for the SPD, does not expect the government to change its position on the issue if the Nord Stream 1 pipeline starts up after maintenance but said nothing could be ruled out in the current situation. Given the Greens' history, crossing the nuclear red line will be difficult, Gremmels told Reuters: "Habeck is demanding a lot from his party with fracking gas, a longer term for coal. If he now also brings nuclear power, the patience of large parts of the Greens will run out."

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