2 April 2024

Clean Energy Wire (Germany)

Q&A ‑ Germany’s nuclear exit: One year after

Decades of debates came to an end in April 2023, when Germany finally shuttered its last nuclear power plants after the energy crisis. One year on, predictions of supply risks, price hikes and dirty coal replacing carbon-free nuclear power have not materialised. Instead, Germany saw a record output of renewable power, the lowest use of coal in 60 years, falling energy prices across the board and a major drop in emissions. Industry representatives warn that an effect on power costs may still become visible once Germany’s economy moves out of recession. At the same time, many countries plan to expand nuclear power, suggesting the country’s phase-out has not found many followers. Yet, global nuclear power market numbers indicate that a nuclear revival is not imminent either.
Source : Clean Energy Wire/Q&A - Germany’s nuclear exit: One year after https://www.cleanenergywire.org/factsheets/qa-germanys-nuclear-exit-one-year-after

from Benjamin Wehrmann • 27 March 2024

1) How has the phase-out been conducted?

The three last remaining nuclear power plants in Germany were taken offline on 15 April 2023. The Atomausstieg’s finalstep marked the end of a process that had been prepared for over two decades and involved almost all of Germany’s main political parties. It followed on a three-month delay caused by the energy crisis, during which the Emsland, Isar 2 and Neckarwestheim 2 plants were kept online as backup capacity for electricity generation.

The last stage of the nuclear phase-out [1] was implemented without any technical challenges or electricity price shocks. Shortly before the deadline, citizens were worried about the possible impact of taking the final step. However, none of the most dire predictions by opposition parties and industry lobby groups materialised. The German Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DIHK) had been a vocal critic of the final phase-out step. One year after the phase-out, there was no indication that companies experienced supply challenges related to the nuclear exit, DIHK energy expert Sebastian Bolay told Clean Energy Wire.

By the phase-out’s first anniversary, Germany had achieved a substantial expansion of its renewable power capacity. However, the country still faces challenges regarding the required grid modernisation as well as back-up and storage capacity, including batteries and green hydrogen infrastructure, to complement renewable power output.

Nuclear power output fell gradually throughout the past years and stood at about 30 TWh before the phase-out.
©Energy Charts

2) Was there any supply security risk in the aftermath?

Already before the phase-out was completed, the importance of nuclear power in Germany’s electricity generation declined significantly in the preceding years. In 1995, nuclear plants contributed almost 30 percent to the mix. By 2022, their share had dropped to roughly 6 percent. The share of renewable energy sources grew from about 5 percent to more than 46 percent during the same period and reached more than 50 percent in 2023.

In the winter season following the phase-out, supply security “significantly improved” compared to the previous year, the Federal Network Agency (BNetzA) said, adding that greater reliability of the French nuclear fleet after its partial shutdown in the 2022/2023 period played a great role in improving stability. The risk of a larger blackout in Germany remained “very low,” the BNetzA said.

DIHK expert Bolay said some companies had reported an increase in short-term energy supply challenges throughout 2023. “Whether this was related to the decommissioning cannot be answered." However, the growing share of renewable power in the system can hardly be an explanation either. “Hourly electricity trading has a greater effect on grid stability than renewable power feed-in,” energy researcher Bruno Burger from the Fraunhofer ISE institute told Clean Energy Wire.

3) What was the gap left by nuclear power filled with?

More renewable energy, lower power consumption, electricity imports and own-production that is not fed into the grid, for example from roof-mounted solar PV installations, compensated for the nuclear reactors’ closure. Nuclear power had a total output of just under 30 terawatt hours (TWh) in the year before the last three plants went offline and output dropped to zero. On the other hand, the output of renewables was 237 TWh in the period between April 2022 and the final phase-out step. In the year after 15 April 2023, renewables already surpassed the previous year’s output, reaching nearly 250 TWh after 11 months. By mid-April, output could reach 270 TWh, according to Fraunhofer ISE researcher Burger, meaning that the additional output of renewables alone could overcompensate for the loss of nuclear capacity in net public electricity generation.

Fossil power sources contributed 210 TWh to electricity production in the final year of nuclear power use and Germany had deployed additional coal power capacity as a safety measure in the energy crisis. However, the fossil fuel-fired power plants’ output dropped markedly in the following year and is projected to end up somewhere around 160 TWh by 15 April 2024, Burger said. In fact, the use of coal power dropped to its lowest level in more than half a century in the same year Germany went nuclear-free, after critics warned that fossil fuel could see a revival to fill the gap.

The total load in the electricity system is projected to decrease compared to the year before the phase-out, from 468 TWh to about 460 TWh, a trend that has partly been due to sluggish growth and lower energy demand from industry. However, as a result of renewables expansion, lower coal power use and reduced energy demand, Germany’s emissions dropped by about 10 percent in the final year of the nuclear exit.

Fossil fuel use dropped significantly in the year after the nuclear exit.
©Energy Charts

4) What changed in electricity imports and why?

For the first time in many years, Germany became a net electricity importer in 2023. The trade balance for electricity switched from 21 TWh of exports to 21 TWh of imports in the same period. Imports have risen despite sufficient plant capacity in Germany to cover domestic demand entirely. In March 2024, the country announced the shutdown of seven more coal-fired power plant units after the winter, as they are no longer needed to guarantee supply security.

According to energy industry association BDEW, Germany’s import balance is simply a sign of a functioning internal EU electricity market: it has been cheaper to generate electricity abroad in recent months and thus replace domestic fossil power generation. Lower power prices on European wholesale markets, driven by a high output of renewables from the Alps to Scandinavia especially during the summer of 2023, meant Germany’s coal power plants could not compete. Electricity retailers therefore opted for imports instead of more expensive domestic production. At the same time, the return of French nuclear plants to the grid, whose shutdown had pushed Germany’s electricity exports in the year before, meant demand abroad was also lower and the scope for power exports reduced.

While Germany’s electricity trade balance turned negative in 2023, imports accounted for only 2 percent of total electricity generation. One quarter of this share came from nuclear power frontrunner France, economy minister Robert Habeck pointed out in early 2024. With the majority of imports coming from renewables-rich Scandinavia, French nuclear energy did not become more important for Germany’s power imports.

5) Did power prices go up due to the phase-out?

Day-ahead prices on the European power exchange in March 2024 stood at roughly 65 euros per megawatt hour (MWh), slightly lower than in June 2021 (72€/MWh), at the onset of the energy crisis and before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The price level in January 2021 was 53€/MWh. Price decreases on wholesale markets also translated into lower power bills for households: New customers in March 2024 paid about as much as those entering contracts in June 2021 (roughly 25 cents per kilowatt hour), according to data by price comparison website Verivox.

However, energy expert Bolay from business association DIHK insisted that the decommissioning must have had an inevitable effect on power prices. “It’s clear that more supply to the market means lower prices for buyers,” he argued. German economy’s weakened output so far might have obscured the real impact: “Larger ramifications can be expected once the economy is back on track and power demand increases,” Bolay said.

Efforts to further develop the power system and guarantee companies an electricity supply at competitive prices after phase-out have been inadequate, he added. “Despite lower purchase prices, many companies pay more than in 2023” due to taxation and grid-related costs. Purchase prices could rise once economic activity picks up again, while further rises in grid fees are expected for the next years, Bolay warned. “Some relief regarding levies and fees is decisive for preventing competitive disadvantages from deepening.”

Prices for new power customers in March 2024 were similar to those paid in June 2021, before the onset of the energy crisis.
©Verivox

6) What happens with the retired nuclear plants and waste materials?

According to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report, 213 nuclear reactors had officially been decommissioned around the world by the beginning of 2024. However, dismantling had only been completed for 22 of these. In Germany, three nuclear reactors have been fully dismantled and 29 are currently in the decommissioning’s final stage, according to the Federal Office for the Safety of Nuclear Waste Management (BASE). Six research reactors and other three other nuclear energy-related installations continue to operate in the country.

Nuclear waste is currently kept in 16 temporary storage facilities that are needed as long as the search for a final repository is completed. This process was initially planned to be completed by 2031, but the deadline meanwhile has been postponed without setting a new date. “Only a deep geological storage offers permanent protection,“BASE said. BGE, the federal company for radioactive waste disposal, has announced to table proposals for a possible location by 2027. “For all further steps, a realistic and ambitious schedule is needed that says until a final repository is to be found,” a spokesperson for BASE told Clean Energy Wire.

The nuclear plant sites could also play a role in solving Germany’s power storage problems: PreussenElektra, operator of the decommissioned Brokdorf nuclear power plant in northern Germany that was taken offline at the end of 2021, wants to transform the site into a 800-megawatt (MW) battery plant. Coming with a price tag of about 500 million euros, the plant would be the biggest of its kind in Europe.

7) How did the national debate about nuclear power develop?

The nuclear exit’s completion in spring 2023 was accompanied by a reignited controversy about the phase-out’s timing during the crisis. Especially representatives from centre-right parties, the conservative CDU/CSU alliance and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), which under then-chancellor Angela Merkel decided to accelerate the original phase-out plan in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, moved on to question the phase-out or even called for re-entering the technology.

Partly fuelled by critical remarks from the International Energy Agency (IEA) about the step’s timeliness, nuclear energy has not disappeared from policy debates after the last reactors went offline. Despite scepticism among former plant operators, the CDU/CSU alliance is pushing to include nuclear energy in long-term energy system planning again. At the same time, local CSU politicians in the southern state of Bavaria have expressed concerns about the security of nuclear power stations planned in neighbouring Czechia. In a nod to the potential of nuclear technology beyond existing procedures, the research minister from the government coalition member FDP party promised a deepened commitment to develop nuclear fusion in Germany.

According to the nuclear safety agency BASE, a debate about re-entering nuclear power in the country lacks a technical foundation. Modern nuclear power plant concepts do not resolve the technology’s fundamental challenge of producing hazardous nuclear waste materials, a report commissioned by BASE found. “None of the alternative reactor types would make a final repository redundant,” the report led by the Institute for Applied Ecology (Öko-Institut) concluded.

Meanwhile, a plan agreed by France and Russia to produce nuclear fuel rods in Germany provoked an outcry among anti-nuclear groups in the country earlier in the year. Greenlighting modifications of the plant to construct the rods would amount to the “co-financing of the Russian war machine” and undermine Germany’s nuclear phase-out, the NGOs argued.

8) How did the nuclear debate move on in the rest of the world?

Many other countries continue to rely on nuclear technology or even plan to considerably expand it in a bid to bring down their energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. At the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) first ever nuclear energy summit in Brussels in March 2024, more than two dozen states called for a revival of the technology, including close allies of Germany such as France, the Netherlands, the U.S. and Japan. “Without the support of nuclear power, we have no chance to reach our climate targets on time,” IEA chief Fatih Birol said at the nuclear summit.

The role of nuclear power in Europe’s emissions reduction plans has been a contentious issue for years, with Germany and France emerging as the main opposing forces between two groups of countries aiming to rely entirely on renewable power or to also use nuclear power in a future climate neutral energy system. France has the largest share of nuclear power production of any country but struggles to secure funding for new projects and to comply with cost and construction time plans for existing ones. The planned new Hinkley Point nuclear plant in the UK has faced years of delay and massive cost overruns. At an estimated 50 billion euros, the plant built by French energy company EDF looks set to become one of the most expensive buildings in history. Similar cost overruns could also occur with the planned new reactors in France.

While building new nuclear power plants remained an “unrealistic strategy for decarbonisation” due to the high cost overruns and long construction times, the current reactor fleet would also not be needed to achieve climate neutrality in Europe, according to an analysis by the NGO alliance European Environmental Bureau (EEB). “The existing nuclear fleet can be phased out alongside fossil fuels as EU countries transition to a drastically more efficient energy system,” the EEB argued. More renewable power in the system, lower energy use, and better flexibility through storage and demand-side management could compensate for the EU’s nuclear energy capacity, the NGO alliance said.

Nuclear plants accounted for roughly 10 percent of Europe’s energy consumption in 2023, with France being the biggest user by far. Most reactors in the EU are approaching their 40-year runtime limit and will likely have to be shut down around 2030 unless they are granted runtime extensions. Globally, nuclear power accounted for about 9 percent of electricity production, down from more than 17 percent in 1996, the World Nuclear Industry Status Report found. In 2023, five new nuclear plants were connected to the grid, but total installed generation capacity still fell by 1 gigawatt (GW) due to parallel decommissioning. The increase in installed renewable power capacity was 107 GW in the same year.

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[1nuclear phase-out (Atomausstieg) In 2000, the then coalition government of Social Democrats and the Green Party agreed to phase out nuclear power by limiting the lifespan of nuclear power stations to about 32 years – meaning the last would be retired around 2022. In 2010, a new government under Chancellor Angela Merkel extended the operating time of nuclear plants by up to 14 years. This decision was reversed only months later in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima accident, when eight German nuclear plants were permanently shut down, and the federal parliament voted to limit the operation of the remaining nine, with the last three to go offline in 2022.