10 Dec 2015, 12:00
Kerstine Appunn

Pulling the plug on nuclear

The question is no longer whether Germany’s future will be nuclear-free – or even when, since the government is committed to completing the phase-out by 2022. But the logistics of pulling the plug on what was until recently one of the country’s primary sources of power are proving an immense challenge for this part of the country's Energiewende. Legal hurdles, decommissioning technicalities and above all the question where to store the radioactive waste and who will pay for it all, are the main issues at hand.


The lights stay on – even without nuclear

Legal hurdles

Turning a nuclear power station site green

Where will the waste go?

How much does it cost…

… and who pays?

The “parents are liable for their children” law

Germany’s nuclear phase-out marks two important anniversaries next year. In 2016, it will be 30 years since the fatal nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl and five years since the catastrophe at Fukushima. These events were crucial to motivation and timing of Germany’s decision to exit nuclear power once and for all, a project that is now under way, and being played out near Rheinsberg, in a nature reserve 100km from Berlin.

Time seems to stand still between the lakes of Nemitzsee and the Großer Stechlinsee. But at the end of a long narrow road through the peaceful forest, a complex and labour-intensive operation at the Rheinsberg nuclear power plant (NPP) provides a glimpse of the future of Germany’s nuclear industry. Today, engineers at NPP Rheinsberg are joined by tourists who arrive in shorts and flip-flops to learn about the operation and decommissioning of the old Russian reactor, the first to be taken into operation in the GDR. The NPP admin building is listed as a piece of original GDR architecture.

Rheinsberg operated for 24 years, before being switched off in 1990. The decommissioning works are ongoing and will continue until 2025. In other words, the process of shutting down Rheinsberg will take 11 years longer than the plant’s power-producing lifetime. It will cost around 600 million euros. The reactor buildings and grounds are slowly being decontaminated but it is still unclear where Rheinsberg’s radioactive waste – and that from other NPPs – will be laid to rest.

Following decades of protests against nuclear power, the government of social democrats and the Green Party in 2002 agreed with the big utilities to limit the lifespan of nuclear power stations in Germany to 32 years so that the last one would be closed by 2022. In 2010, a new government under chancellor Angela Merkel reversed this legislation, extending the operating time of nuclear plants for up to 14 more years (See Factsheet The history behind the nuclear phase-out). In 2011 under the impression of the Fukushima accident, parliament voted by an 80-percent majority to shut down all Germany’s nuclear reactors by 2022 and Germany had its nuclear phase-out back.

The country has been coming to terms with the practical and financial implications of this ever since. Compared to the task of covering a major industrial nation’s energy needs with renewable sources, switching off the 22 remaining NPPs once looked like the easy bit of Germany’s ambitious energy transition (Energiewende), a project that also aims to drastically reduce CO2-emissions. Now, the country is discovering just how laborious it is to shut down what was the country’s biggest single source of electricity in 2005 – covering 26.2 percent of production.

“The technical and economical handling and storage of our radioactive waste will be the most difficult challenge of the Energiewende,” predicts Christian von Hirschhausen, researcher at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW).

38 years after Germany began to decommission its first nuclear power stations, and just seven years away from becoming a nuclear power-free zone, the country is struggling with almost every aspect of the nuclear phase-out.

One issue that isn’t a problem is public consent. The vast majority of Germans want to see nuclear power gone sooner rather than later. According to a 2015 poll, 81 percent of Germans back the nuclear phase-out. Among 14 to 29 year olds, that rises to 93 percent.

But one of Germany’s leading newspapers, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) has likened the legal (or possibly illegal – See Factsheet Legal implications of the nuclear phase-out here) process of implementing the nuclear standstill order, enacting the immediate shut-down of eight NPP after Fukushima, and the second phase-out decision in 2011 to a novel by Franz Kafka.

Shutting down a nuclear power station requires more than simply switching it off. Engineers point out that reverting the site to “greenfield” status, as the technical term goes, takes several decades and produces tonnes of radioactive waste.

What will become of this waste is a contentious issue. Storage locations both for the medium- and long-term custody of radioactive material are few and far between, and no region in Germany is keen to host the poisonous remains.

And then there are the costs. Power suppliers who operated nuclear reactors are liable to pay for their deconstruction and waste storage. In line with German law, they have made provisions of around 38 billion euros for these duties. But experts doubt if this sum will suffice. The shaky economic standing of the big utilities has triggered concerns they won’t have the financial means to deal with their radioactive legacy.

The lights stay on – even without nuclear

On 28 June 2015, E.ON shut down Grafenrheinfeld NPP in Bavaria. It was the first plant to be mothballed since Angela Merkel’s conservative-liberal coalition government ordered the closure of eight stations in 2011. Even though Grafenrheinfeld covered 11.5 percent of Bavarian power consumption right up to its final days of operation, alternative energy proponents and think-tank Agora Energiewende* quickly calculated that electricity supply would remain stable, since renewable power easily covered the 10 billion kilowatt-hours the plant produced annually. This was echoed by Bavaria’s minister for energy and economy, Ilse Aigner, who told the press, “security of supply was not endangered in any way due to the exit of Grafenrheinfeld”.

DIW published a study in May 2015 finding that the power supply would remain secure in Germany, even after the last nuclear power plant had gone offline in 2022. “Germany will even continue to export power in 2025, thanks to growth of renewable energies and the fact that we have vast overcapacities at the moment,” said the DIW’s Claudia Kemfert, who co-authored the study.  

Bolstered by this reassurance, Grafenrheinfeld’s end was a quiet one, with few protests from industry and local beneficiaries of the nuclear power plant. As with Grafenrheinfeld, most German towns in the vicinity of nuclear reactors have a love-hate relationship with the local plant. For many residents the plant provides reliable, life-long employement while taxes and revenues paid to the community are often topped up with donations to local clubs and communal facilities. Others have long campaigned for their closure, blaming NPPs for a (disputed) rise in leukaemia, and following Chernobyl and Fukushima, perceiving them as an ever-present mortal danger.

Karsten Hinrichsen, who founded the anti-nuclear group “Brokdorf Akut” has been campaigning against the northern German reactors at Brokdorf and Brunsbüttel for 40 years. He says the conflict is now all but over. “We are now fighting for a clean deconstruction with as little radioactive pollution as possible and we are still campaigning for the plant at Brokdorf to be taken offline earlier,” he told the Clean Energy Wire.

The anti-nuclear movement has a long history in Germany, but aside from concerns over safety, many now argue that there is no useful place for nuclear power in the future German energy landscape dominated by renewables. Nina Scheer, a member of parliament for the Social Democrats (SPD), which currently forms the coalition government alongside Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), says shutting down nuclear capacity is the “only logical answer” for Germany. “In an energy system that made up of almost 100 percent decentralised and fluctuating renewable power sources, there is no place for large inflexible electricity plants such as nuclear stations,” she told the Clean Energy Wire. According to government plans, Germany’s Energiewende will see at least 80 percent of gross electricity consumption covered by renewables by 2050.

Legal hurdles

Even if the political debate about nuclear power’s future is over, the early stages of the phase-out are being hotly debated in legal battles that could end up costing the state billions of euros in damages. Nuclear power station operators E.ON, RWE, EnBW and Vattenfall aren’t fighting the nuclear phase-out per se, but they are claiming compensation for profits lost as a result of plants being shut down early. More than 30 lawsuits and constitutional complaints, adding up to demands of over 20 billion euros, are pending as a result of the nuclear phase-out. Even lifelong anti-nuclear campaigners like Hinrichsen say they wish Merkel had put the nuclear exit on a more solid legal footing. (See factsheet on legal issues of the nuclear phase-out here).

Turning a nuclear power station site green

When NPP Rheinsberg was powered down in 1990 it had reached the end of its legal lifespan and all its fuel elements were still in the reactor. The same is true of the eight plants that Merkel’s government shut down in 2011 in the wake of the Fukushima reactor meltdown in Japan.

“When it comes to technical and organisational challenges, the operators of the eight recently shut-down reactors face exactly the same issues that we’ve had,” says Hartmut Gülow of Energiewerke Nord (EWN). EWN is in charge of decommissioning several nuclear power plants in Germany, among them the NPP Rheinsberg. The sudden standstill order in 2011 means the first years are being spent reorganising or selling fresh fuel elements and buying castor casks for used elements (at over 2 million euros a piece), says Gülow. He has worked at Rheinsberg for 47 years. For more than half of that time he’s been in charge of dismantling the reactor. Only after the rods have left the plant can the clean-up begin. Disposing of Rheinsberg’s 74 unradiated fuel elements (they sold them to Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US in 1995) and 246 used ones took nine years.

By 2022, the last of Germany’s remaining eight nuclear plants is to go offline. Between 1971 and 2011 15 power producing reactors have been shut down and so far most operators have decided to dismantle them immediately, rather than opting for so-called “safe enclosure”. The latter means encasing radioactive remains to prevent leakage and only dismantling them 40 to 60 years later – once radioactivity has subsided naturally.

“We considered safe enclosure in the beginning but it paid off to undertake decommissioning with the plant’s own staff because they really know the ins and outs of it,” says Gülow. He reasons that after 50 years, no one would remember exactly where things were and how they worked, making the clean-up all the more difficult. RWE and Vattenfall, which are in the early stages of decommissioning power stations Biblis, Krümmel and Brunsbüttel, are following EWN’s lead, saying their own experienced personnel will undertake most of the clean-up.

Gülow and his team are decommissioning pioneers. Since 1990 they have faced it all: long-winded bureaucracy (it took five years just to get permission to start dismantling), unpleasant surprises (there also was a hot cell for research and some radioactive waste ponds on-site), transport difficulties (a train-vehicle large enough to carry the reactor’s pressure vessel had to be imported from Austria) and technical challenges. They had to buy new gear, such as a PETRA facility to dry out around 1,000 barrels of weak and medium radioactive waste before it could be sent to an interim storage facility. In 2005, they turned the reactor cooling pond into an “underwater cutting place” where highly radioactive remains could be dissembled with remotely controlled cutting devices. 

Today, with the 2025 finishing line for the Rheinsberg clean-up in sight, EWN’s expertise is in demand. The company, which is also decommissioning a larger GDR reactor in Greifswald and a research reactor near the west German town of Jülich, has won contracts to dismantle the EnBW reactor in Obrigheim, and since 2003 has been in charge of the technical decommissioning of the Russian nuclear submarine fleet at Murmansk. “Decommissioning knowledge and technology is one of Germany’s export products and we sure have gained a lot of experience in it,” says Gülow.

Germany will have more than 20 atomic power plants in various states of decommissioning in 2022, including the eight plants switched off in 2011, plus several nuclear research facilities (See Figure 2). There will be plenty of work in nuclear decommissioning until at least 2050 as the dismantling and cleaning work required takes an average of 20 to 25 years, taking into account inevitable delays. EWN, for one, is looking for new engineers and offers a trainee programme.

Other areas of research in Germany have been less fortunate in the wake of the nuclear phase-out. “Funding for nuclear waste management research has remained stable but support for reactor safety research has decreased considerably,” Dirk Bosbach, professor for nuclear waste disposal at the Forschungszentrum Jülich and spokesperson of NUSAFE (Nuclear waste management, safety and radiation research) told the Clean Energy Wire. Industry funding for nuclear safety research has shrunk substantially because any kind of innovation is likely to arrive after the last German plant is shut down in 2022 - too late for power station operators.

“It’s important that Germany remains competent in the field of nuclear safety,” Bosbach says. Otherwise, German experts won’t be tapped for international committees that set NPP standards. But to stay competent, scientists must continue participating in international research programmes. This requires domestic research on innovative reactor models, Bosbach says.

But a number of stakeholders have been critical of such research, in view of the long-fought-over legislative and public consensus to close down nuclear plants. “In the end it’s a political and societal decision whether we want this kind of nuclear research or not,” Bosbach says. As long as German research institutes can offer interesting projects and opportunities, professionals will stay and young students find it attractive. In his area of expertise – concerning the safe management of nuclear waste – there was a lot of interest from young academics.

Where will the waste go?

A total of 342,000 tonnes of material must be removed from NPP Rheinsberg, 60,000 tonnes of which is radioactively contaminated. While some of it can be cleaned and released into the normal substance cycle, thousands of tonnes of low and medium level nuclear waste must be safely stored.

Because the lifespan of its nuclear reactors is limited and the existing amount of nuclear remains is established, Germany is in the rare position of knowing pretty much exactly how much radioactive waste it will have to store. 303,000 cubic meters (m3) of low and medium level nuclear waste will go to a final storage facility in the retired Schacht Konrad iron ore mine near Salzgitter. The repository is currently under construction and scheduled to be loaded in 2022, a process that should take no longer than 40 years, the Ministry for Environment, which is in charge of nuclear law, says in its “national disposal programme” of August 2015.

The fate of 28,100 m3 of high-level waste in 1,900 containers and 200,000 m3 of low and medium level waste which has been unsafely stored in a disused salt mine in Asse, Lower Saxony is less clear (See Factsheet on nuclear waste storage in Germany here). Heat-generating waste accounts for only a fraction of Germany’s radioactive refuse, but it is responsible for 99 percent of the radiation. The environment ministry set up an expert commission that has until next year to come up with a plan to look for a final repository for heat-generating waste. The search itself will continue until 2031. Once a site has been found, the repository must be constructed in time for the first containers housing used fuel elements to be deposited there in 2050. The procedure of transporting and storing thousands of casks in the final repository will take until 2090 or 2100, Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks said in August. “In 2050, when the final repository is ready I will be 98 years old, so I am not sure I will live to see it happen, but I certainly feel that it is my responsibility to organise this now,” Hendricks said.

When it comes to finding a final repository for the highly radioactive waste, Germany is a “blank map”, Hendricks said – anywhere with a rock formation suitable for an underground repository is a possible location. But no community in Germany is keen on living next door to a cemetery for contaminated waste.

Even finding storage for 26 containers of high-level waste now ready to return from reprocessing facilities in France and the UK has provoked a high-profile controversy. After state premiers failed to agree on who would take the casks and how many, the environment ministry had to assign them, provoking angry reactions from Bavaria (See Factsheet nuclear waste storage here).

How much does it cost…

Decommissioning, storing, transporting and re-storing – ridding Germany of its nuclear heritage comes with a hefty price tag. The state will have to pay the decommissioning and storage costs for publically owned research reactors and for EWN’s activities in the former GDR, since these power plants did not find private owners after Germany’s reunification. The environment ministry estimates a bill of around 6 billion euros, excluding the costs for finding, building and operating a final repository, but says the figure is “afflicted with great uncertainties”. The state will also pay over 5 billion euros to retrieve and re-store the unsafely stored waste from Asse, and a further 2.4 billion euros to close the facility in Morsleben (See Factsheet on nuclear clean-up costs here).

Vattenfall says that from previous experience, costs for the post-operation period, and decommissioning works range from 500 million to 1 billion euros per NPP, depending on its size, age and run-time. RWE estimates that costs of decommissioning two reactor blocks at Biblis in the next 15 years will be “considerably higher than 1 billion euros”.

The environment ministry expects the cost burden to peak between 2016 and 2020 but says storage will still need financing in 2080. The final repository for low and medium level waste at Schacht Konrad will cost around 7.5 billion euros, according to the ministry. Previous calculations put the locating, building and operating of a final repository for heat-generating waste at around 10 billion euros, but in August the ministry said it was impossible to pin down concrete figures, since even the site of the final repository was still unknown.

“We lack both the technical and the economic experience to assess how much the dismantling of nuclear power stations will actually cost,” says DIW researcher von Hirschhausen.

In April 2015, Michael Müller, head of the parliament’s final repository search commission, said costs could rise to 50 or 70 billion euros over the coming decades. Von Hirschhausen says this estimate is a reference point. “When we talk about storage, we are talking about an issue that will follow us into the 22nd century,” he told journalists, pointing to a major problem with achieving any realistic estimates.

… and who pays?

The “polluter pays” principle and provisions in the nuclear power law and the German Commercial Code oblige the four big German utilities E.ON, RWE, Vattenfall and EnBW (as well as some smaller municipal utilities who have part ownership of some of the big four’s NPPs) to put aside funds for dismantling and waste storage. And so they have. By the end of 2014, the utilities had set aside 38 billion euros – 22 billion for decommissioning their power plants and 16 billion for final storage (See Factsheet Securing utility payments for the nuclear clean-up here).

But with the final costs still so unclear – and potentially many times higher than the funds put aside – many fear that it will be the (future) taxpayer who foots the bill for the nuclear clean-up. Back in 2011, the German Federal Court of Auditors (Bundesrechnungshof) had already said the government lacked the expertise to judge whether provisions made by the utilities were sufficient, posing considerable risk to the federal budget.

For decades, the utilities earned handsome profits from nuclear power. But now they are struggling to adjust to a new energy world – increasingly dominated by decentralised renewable energy – and are earning less and less from their conventional plants. It’s not impossible that these companies will cease to exist long before their nuclear waste is safely stored away.

These concerns have been noted by the Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, which had the utilities' provisions stress-tested by auditors and is working on a law to prevent nuclear power operators from shirking responsibility by restructuring their companies.

“We know how much the companies have earmarked as provisions for nuclear decommissioning and storage but we don’t know how exactly they have invested these sums,” Nina Scheer of the SPD told the Clean Energy Wire. “And there’s the rub: the utilities are free to invest provisions in tangible assets like power stations but there is no guarantee that these assets will be worth as much in the future as they are now.”

On behalf of the energy ministry, auditors at Warth & Klein Grant Thornton scrutinised the utilities for exactly this. The government and the utilities said in mid-October the calculations had shown that the provisions would be sufficient to pay for the decommissioning of nuclear reactors. But the stress-test results also revealed that the potential cost could far exceed the utilities' provisions - primarily depending on the assumption made on interest rates and future price increases for the work ahead. Professor Wolfgang Irrek, an energy expert at the  Ruhr West University of Applied Sciences, told Süddeutsche Zeitung the stress test whitewashed the problems, because it didn't investigate worst-case scenarios. "Instead, it draws conclusions on the basis of risk-free expectations." He said it was problematic to say the utilities had "passed" the stress test.

Bettina Meyer and Swantje Küchler, associates at Green Budget Germany (FÖS), have compared provisions made by the big four utilities by calculating how much each has put aside per kilowatt of nuclear capacity.

“What worries us is that the amount ranges from 1,300 €/kW at RWE to 1.700 €/kW at EnBW, 1,800 €/kW at E.ON and 2,000 €/kW at Vattenfall,” Meyer told the Clean Energy Wire. She said it was also unclear why the companies came up with such different provisions assigned for decommissioning and waste storage. “There might be plausible reasons for these differences but without more transparency and information from the utilities, we cannot understand and evaluate them.”

Vattenfall and RWE deny their nuclear provisions lack transparency. “The provisions are examined and adapted annually,” a Vattenfall spokesperson told the Clean Energy Wire, adding that they were based on existing contracts, external expert views and information from the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS), and checked by independent auditors.

Critics remain unconvinced. Some suggest the utilities should pay their nuclear provisions into a state-administered fund, to protect them from company values losses or bankruptcy. Similar funds exist in France, Belgium, Czech Republic, Sweden, Finland and Hungary. The FÖS proposed that such a fund should contain sufficient assets to pay for the projected costs of the nuclear clean-up, and include a risk reserve or an obligation to provide further capital if needed (top-up liability) (See factsheet on nuclear funds here).

When asked whether having to make cash available for a public fund would have a strangling effect on the company, RWE spokesperson Lothar Lambertz told the Clean Energy Wire that RWE’s nuclear provisions were secure and would be available once needed.

The economics and energy ministry will present its own proposal for how to safeguard nuclear decommissioning and storage funding in the autumn.

The “parents are liable for their children” law

The ministry has also presented a draft law that will enforce the nuclear operators’ liability in case of company restructurings. Minister Gabriel calls it the “parents are liable for their children” law, with E.ON’s announcement to spin off its conventional operations in mind. Under current legislation, E.ON’s liability for the new company, Uniper – which was to include nuclear operations and plant decommissioning – ends after five years. Gabriel wants to make the “parent” liable indefinitely.

E.ON's reaction came in early September. The operation and decommissioning of the company’s German nuclear activities will not be transferred to the new spin-off Uniper, as previously planned, but will remain with E.ON, the board decided. CEO Teyssen explained that the government’s change in law created unacceptable risks for the company’s previous spin-off plans.

He reiterated that he deemed a change to the five-year liability limit to be unconstitutional, but said his company didn’t have the time to wait for the outcome of a legal dispute which might take years (See a CLEW article on E.ON’s changed spin-off plans here).

Following months of heated debate and with so many lawsuits pending over the nuclear phase-out, it was time to find a common solution for decommissioning and nuclear waste storage, Teyssen said in August.

Thorben Becker, head of the climate change group at Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND) has warned against letting utilities get off lightly on condition that they drop their legal pursuits against the nuclear phase-out. This would entangle issues that should be handled separately, Becker told an expert hearing of the economy and energy committee at the federal parliament in March 2015. Scheer says that any such deal would be dubious as long as the basic responsibilities and costs for nuclear decommissioning and storage aren’t completely ascertained.

The legal, financial and logistical hassle over the nuclear phase-out won’t be laid to rest any time soon. But few believe Germany could countenance a return to nuclear power – or even extend the operating times of existing plants.

“If we continue to source nuclear power, we will have to deal with even more nuclear waste and that will cost even more money,” said Scheer.

All texts created by the Clean Energy Wire are available under a “Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC BY 4.0)” . They can be copied, shared and made publicly accessible by users so long as they give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made.
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