Germany’s vice-chancellor has defended the government’s commitment to ending the use of nuclear power at the end of this year, amid fears that Russia may halt natural gas supplies entirely.
Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck, who is also the economy and climate minister and is responsible for energy, argued that keeping the few remaining reactors running would do little to address the problems caused by a possible natural gas shortfall.
“Nuclear power doesn’t help us there at all,” Habeck, said at a news conference in Vienna on Tuesday. “We have a heating problem or an industry problem, but not an electricity problem – at least not generally throughout the country.”
The main gas pipeline from Russia to Germany shut down for annual maintenance on Monday, as Berlin grew concerned that Moscow may not resume the flow of gas as scheduled.
The Nord Stream 1 pipeline, Germany’s main source of Russian gas, is scheduled to be out of action until July 21 for routine work that the operator says includes “testing of mechanical elements and automation systems”.
But German officials are suspicious of Russia’s intentions, particularly after Russia’s Gazprom last month reduced the gas flow through Nord Stream 1 by 60 percent.
Gazprom cited technical problems involving a gas turbine powering a compressor station that partner Siemens Energy sent to Canada for overhaul.
Germany’s main opposition party has called repeatedly for the country’s last three nuclear reactors to be kept online after the end of December. There is some sympathy for that position in the ranks of the pro-business Free Democrats, the smallest party in Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s governing coalition.
In this year’s first quarter, nuclear energy accounted for 6 percent of Germany’s electricity generation and natural gas for 13 percent, both significantly lower than a year earlier. Germany has been getting about 35 percent of its gas from Russia.
Habeck said the legal certification for the remaining reactors expires at the end of the year and they would have to be treated thereafter as effectively new nuclear plants, complete with safety considerations and the likely “very small advantage” in terms of saving gas would not outweigh the complications.
Fuel for the reactors also would have to be procured and Scholz has said that the fuel rods are generally imported from Russia.
Opposition politicians have argued that Habeck’s environmentalist Green party, which has long strongly supported the nuclear phase-out, is opposing keeping reactors online for ideological reasons.
Reducing dependency on Russia
Germany and the rest of Europe are scrambling to fill the gas storage in time for the northern hemisphere winter and reduce their dependence on Russian energy imports.
Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Berlin had said it considered nuclear energy dangerous and in January objected to European Union proposals that would let the technology remain part of the bloc’s plans for a climate-friendly future.
“We consider nuclear technology to be dangerous,” government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit told reporters in Berlin, noting that the question of what to do with radioactive waste that will last for thousands of generations remains unresolved.
While neighbouring France aimed to modernise existing reactors, Germany stayed on course to switch off its remaining three nuclear power plants at the end of this year and phase out coal by 2030.
Last month, Germany’s economy minister said the country would limit the use of natural gas for electricity production and make a temporary recourse to coal.
“It’s bitter but indispensable for reducing gas consumption,” Robert Habeck said.
The move marked a turnaround for Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s ruling coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and the liberal FDP, which pledged to wind down its coal usage by 2030.