Increasing emissions, rising electricity prices, disadvantages in competition: There are great concerns about the end of the last nuclear power plants. CDU economic politician Julia Klöckner calls the shutdown of the reactors “negligent and irresponsible,” including “rising energy prices and more climate-damaging CO₂.” What is it about the worries – and what is in store for the country after the exit? An overview.
Are there potential power supply bottlenecks when the nuclear power plants are shut down?
The three nuclear power plants, which are now being shut down, last covered five percent of Germany’s electricity consumption. There is no threat of a bottleneck: For years, Germany has been generating more electricity on average than it needs itself. In February, for example, the country exported twice as much electricity as was generated by nuclear power. According to the Federal Network Agency, there will be no need to worry about a stable power supply by 2030. According to a report by the Bonn authorities, “the load can be covered at any time of the year on the electricity market”. A “congestion-free network operation” is also guaranteed.
Will German nuclear power now be replaced by that from France or the Czech Republic?
The flow of electricity in Europe’s grid knows no borders, so nuclear power from neighboring countries also ends up in Germany. Especially when the wind turbines are standing still and no ray of sunshine touches the solar cells. However, this is part of normality in the European electricity network – and can be reversed the next day. According to the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems, Germany achieved an electricity export surplus of around 26 terawatt hours in 2022. This corresponds to around five percent of German production. However, France was the second largest importer of German electricity after Austria. Germany, on the other hand, imported electricity primarily from Scandinavia.
Will we produce more CO₂ in the future?
In terms of electricity generation, German emissions have recently increased significantly – mainly because coal-fired power plants went online. In times of the gas crisis, this should prevent bottlenecks. But this cannot lead to higher emissions across Europe – so-called emissions trading takes care of that. It sets a maximum limit for emissions from power plants and factories that are harmful to the climate, and does so in the form of tradable CO₂ certificates. So if coal-fired power plants emit more CO₂, these allowances will become scarcer and their price will rise. This in turn makes climate-friendly alternatives, such as green electricity, more attractive. From year to year, the EU is reducing the number of certificates – and thus the emissions.
Are electricity prices rising?
Like all markets, the electricity market follows the law of supply and demand. With the end of nuclear power plants, the supply is now slightly tighter, which tends to cause prices to rise. This applies in particular when the current most expensive plants, the gas-fired power plants, have to be connected to the grid due to the shortage. However, the price of electricity has recently stabilized along with gas prices, albeit at a significantly higher level than two years ago. Renewable energies should replace part of the lost electricity. The expansion of wind and solar energy has picked up lately. According to the market master data register of the Federal Network Agency, almost twice as much wind energy capacity and two and a half times more solar energy went into the grid in the first three months of 2023 compared to the previous year. The situation should ease further once the necessary power lines are finished.
Are there imitators of the German exit?
No. Sweden, for example, originally wanted to be out by 2010 – now the new government is considering building new nuclear power plants. The Netherlands are also planning to build two new reactors, and in Belgium the operating times of the two youngest reactors have been extended to 2035. Neighbors Poland and the Czech Republic are also planning new buildings. The often-cited renaissance of nuclear energy has not yet materialised: most of the 57 reactors currently under construction are in China, India and Russia. The few projects in Europe, for example in Great Britain, France and Finland, are struggling with delays and immense construction costs. Meanwhile, the rest is aging: On average, the world’s 412 reactors are more than 31 years old. Globally, most of the money is now flowing into renewable energies and their infrastructures: According to figures from the International Energy Agency, they account for 80 percent of all electricity investments.
What is happening now in the German power plants?
According to the Federal Office for the Safety of Nuclear Waste Management, 27 German nuclear power plants are currently being dismantled, some for many years. Due to the contamination alone, dismantling is no less complex than building a new one. The three plants that are now being shut down are pressurized water reactors. The so-called primary circuit is most contaminated here – this is where nuclear fission produced the water vapor that ultimately, in a second circuit, drove the power generators. This primary circuit must be flushed with acid to decontaminate it. Only then can the irradiated components be dismantled step by step. Experts reckon it will take ten years for a nuclear power plant to be dismantled – of course only once all the permits have been granted.
What happens to the nuclear waste?
Packed in Castor containers, the spent and cooled fuel elements are to be transported to an underground repository, which is being searched for in a complex process. The site should actually be found by 2031, but the federal agency responsible for final disposal no longer expects a decision on the site before 2046. Until then, the nuclear waste must be temporarily stored in halls next to the nuclear power plants. However, their permits are also expiring, the first in 2034. The situation is somewhat better for waste that is low- or medium-level radioactive, such as contaminated debris from nuclear power plants. The former ore mine Schacht Konrad near Salzgitter has been upgraded for many years. It should be finished in 2027 – as of now.