Energy policy in times of the Ukraine war: Nuclear power instead of natural gas?
The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine has direct impacts on Germany’s energy and climate policy. Issues of energy supply security, dependence on Russia and rising prices matter to a great many people. At the same time, from a scientific perspective, not enough thought is being given to possible alternatives. We have therefore compiled the following dossier of facts and figures on the key issues.
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How much natural gas do we currently import from Russia, and what is it used for?
In 2020, Germany imported around 860 terawatt-hours (TWh) (net) of natural gas. In previous years, the figure was closer to 1,000 TWh or more. In 2020, roughly two thirds of Germany’s imported natural gas – approximately 570 TWh – came from Russia. The percentage had steadily increased in previous years, averaging around 50%. Most of the natural gas required in Germany is burned to produce heat for buildings or to support high-temperature applications in food and chemical production, for example. Only around 19% – 188 TWh – is used for power generation.
Can we replace natural gas by extending the lifetimes of the nuclear power plants?
Most of the natural gas used in heat production for buildings or in industrial processes cannot be replaced by nuclear power. The reason is that of the 188 TWh that we use for gas-fired power generation in Germany, around 120 TWh is burned in combined heat and power (CHP) plants, also known as cogeneration plants, which produce not only electricity but also district heating and hot water for buildings or heat for industrial processes. The nuclear power plants would, at best, serve as a substitute in power generation, but not in heat production. Nuclear power plants cannot replace heat and power cogeneration plants.
So in effect, out of the 188 TWh of natural gas-fired power generation, a fraction – amounting to approximately 70 TWh – comes from gas-fired power plants that only produce electricity, which in theory could be replaced by nuclear power. This amounts to around 10% of our Russian gas imports. However, these gas-fired power plants perform a specific function in the energy market, not least for the electricity grids. They are highly flexible and can start operating very quickly to compensate for any shortfall in energy generation from wind or solar. Nuclear power plants are unsuited to this type of flexible operation as they have little or no capability to be powered up or down in a matter of minutes. Nor can they substitute for the gas-fired power plants’ role in stabilising the electricity supply. A recent briefing paper by the German Association of Energy and Water Industries (BDEW) on the short-term substitution and savings potential of natural gas in Germany analyses various options for reducing natural gas consumption across a range of sectors. One option examined for the electricity sector, besides a market-driven reduction of gas-fired power generation, is to extend the lifetimes of the nuclear power plants. The study finds that this scenario would produce a reduction of around 3 TWh in power generation from natural gas. Assuming that the gas-fired power plants operate at 50% efficiency, this would amount to a natural gas saving of 6 TWh.
So our interim conclusion is that the nuclear power plants are not a suitable substitute for power generation from natural gas.
Which other problems would arise if the nuclear power plants continued to operate?
Apart from the fact that the nuclear phase-out has been written into law and cannot be easily amended without further legislation, there are other barriers that make their continued operation more difficult. They include:
- Insufficient availability of fuel rods: The number of fuel rods in use at the nuclear power plants is optimised for operation until 31 December 2022. After that, the fuel will be spent; however, no new fuel rods have been procured. The procurement of new fuel rods takes around eighteen months to two years. This rules out in purely physical terms any short-term extension of lifetimes and predetermines the amount of electricity that can still be generated by the reactors.
- Suspension of safety reviews: At the three nuclear power plants still in operation, the periodic safety reviews – which are conducted on a mandatory basis at ten-year intervals – were due in 2019. Under the Atomic Energy Act (Atomgesetz – AtG), an exemption was made for plants whose operation is due to cease on 31 December 2022 and the reviews were suspended. If the plants were to operate beyond this statutory time limit, it would be necessary to conduct the safety reviews in order to authorise this continued operation. Some upgrading and retrofitting of the plants may also be required. In that scenario, the plants would possibly have to stand idle for some time in order to allow this upgrading and retrofitting to take place.
- Lack of a legal basis and permits: The nuclear power plants that are to be shut down on 31 December 2022 are not authorised to operate beyond that date under the German AtG. The Act would therefore have to be amended to specify a new time limit, with the allocation of new electricity quantities and the issuing of new permits. Any amendment to the legislation would also have to include a risk assessment, which would now have to factor in the additional risks associated with a war in Europe.
- The unresolved liability issue: A further question which arises is who would assume liability for the continued operation of the plants. It is difficult to imagine the plant operators being willing to cover the risks. The German government would therefore have to assume liability for risks that are almost impossible to calculate.
- Skills shortage: If the plants are to remain online, properly trained and qualified operational staff will be required. To allow the plants to continue operating beyond the legally stipulated time limit of 31 December 2022, the staff would have to pass the appropriate examinations. However, it takes several years of specialist training to produce a skilled nuclear industry worker. What’s more, the nuclear licensing authorities and their inspection organisations have cut back on staff, so there is a shortage of personnel with the requisite skills here as well.
- Lack of replacement parts: Due to the forthcoming shutdowns, the nuclear power plants have reduced their inventories of replacement parts. Restocking these parts at this late stage may well prove difficult: in some cases, the manufacturers possibly no longer exist, or procurement is impacted by the sanctions against Russia or the all too familiar supply chain problems.
- High economic costs: It would therefore take some time to restart operations, and once again, substantial financial resources would have to be invested in the reactors before they are shut down permanently, in the end. This money would be far better invested in other energy supply sectors instead. On top of that, there are the costs of liability insurance for the extended operating periods. To allow for the procurement of new fuel rods, for safety checks and for any upgrading and retrofitting that may be required, the reactors would initially have to be powered down for a lengthy period from January 2023.
- Part-load operation to postpone electricity production until next winter: It is only possible to extend the lifetimes of the nuclear power plants for a few months in winter 2023 if power generation at these plants is scaled back in 2022. This would require the plants to ramp down their electricity production substantially and do so very soon – with a 50% reduction in the summer months, for example – to ensure that sufficient nuclear fuel is available for the upcoming winter. However, the quantities of electricity that are due to be generated in summer have already been sold and the nuclear power plant operators are obliged to supply this electricity. In this scenario, they would have no option but to buy in electricity at high prices over the short term in order to honour their supply commitments in summer, potentially resulting in substantial additional costs. The electricity purchased in summer 2022 is likely to come from coal-fired power plants, in line with the merit order principle. Likewise, in a scenario without stretchout operation in early 2023, coal-fired power plants would have to compensate for a reduced generation from gas-fired plants. From a climate policy perspective, a stretchout operation would therefore be a zero-sum game, but one with very high costs.
Our conclusion, therefore, is that nuclear power plants are not needed because they cannot fulfil the functions of gas-fired power generation. Extending their lifetimes is not technically feasible in the short term; medium-term extension of electricity production would require a lead-in period of around eighteen months to two years. This medium-term extension would be extremely costly, entail high safety risks and substantial administrative effort, and it is likely to be impossible to find anyone willing to assume liability for the risks.
Is the EU’s dependence on Russia in the nuclear energy sector currently underestimated?
Europe is heavily dependent on Russia for nuclear energy as well, perhaps to an even greater extent than for gas. The main sources of uranium imports into the EU in 2020 were Niger (20.3%), Russia (20.2%), Kazakhstan (19.2%), Canada (18.4%), Australia (13.3%) and Namibia (3.8%). Just 0.5% of the uranium used in the EU comes from the EU itself. However, this apparent diversity of sources is deceptive. Russia has a close relationship with Kazakhstan, while the mines in Niger belong to Chinese state-owned companies, as do two of the three largest uranium mines in Namibia. The third Namibian mine is largely Chinese-owned. In other words, in 2020, only 32% of uranium imports into Europe were supplied by firms that are not owned by totalitarian regimes. It follows that here too, Europe has placed itself in a position of high import dependence.
Around 25% of uranium enrichment and some processes in fuel rod fabrication for the EU take place in Russia. Many Russian-designed reactors source their fuel rods largely from the Russian company TVEL – now part of Rosatom – on the basis of long-term supply contracts that run for 10 years or more. There are Russian-designed nuclear reactors in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary and Slovakia. The 16 older pressurised water reactors, type WWER-440, are totally dependent on TVEL for fuel rod fabrication. These older reactors can be found in Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Even the Euratom Supply Agency itself identifies this dependence as a significant vulnerability factor. The operators are dependent on imports of Russian technology. The Western European nuclear power plants are also far from being independent. The French company Areva collaborates with TVEL in order to supply fuel rods for seven reactors in Western Europe, including the Loviisa nuclear power plant in Finland. As recently as December 2021, the French nuclear company Framatome signed a new strategic cooperation agreement on the development of fuel fabrication and instrumentation and control (I&C) technologies.
The Russian fuel rod manufacturer TVEL was also keen to enter into fuel rod production at the factory in Lingen, Germany, which currently belongs to the French company ANF. Lingen supplies fuel rods to British, French and Belgian nuclear power plants. The German Federal Cartel Office approved the venture in March 2021, whereupon the Federal Economics Ministry conducted an open-ended review until the end of January 2022. On the day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Ministry announced that the Rosatom subsidiary TVEL had withdrawn its application. In Germany, the Rosatom Group also owns a subsidiary, NUKEM Technologies, which specialises in the decommissioning of nuclear facilities, decontamination, waste management and radiation protection. In Germany, it plans and constructs storage facilities for radioactive waste and is involved in decommissioning the Neckarwestheim and Philippsburg nuclear power plants.
So Putin manoeuvred the European nuclear industry into a position of dependence on Russia long ago, and he himself earns income from the decommissioning of the German nuclear power plants. The only difference is that while this dependence on gas has been widely discussed, the same cannot be said of the nuclear industry. And yet the EU member states have no intention of ending this nuclear dependence. In the relevant Council Regulation of 15 March 2022, civil nuclear-related activities were excluded from the definition of the energy sector and are therefore, quite explicitly, not covered by the prohibition on investments in the Russian energy sector. Although practically 100% of the EU’s uranium is imported, as is most of the fuel rod supply, the EU classes nuclear energy as “domestic” production because fuel rods can easily be stockpiled. Here, we see a similar Orwellian use of language as in the EU Taxonomy, which describes nuclear energy as a technology which does not cause significant harm to the environment. As the Süddeutsche Zeitung reported on 18 March 2022, even the EU’s flight ban on Russian aircraft was lifted for a delivery of nuclear fuel into Slovakia.
So our conclusion on this topic is that as regards nuclear energy too, the dependence on Russia must be drastically reduced. Supply security with no dependence on totalitarian regimes requires a substantial reduction in nuclear energy use in Europe.
How do we achieve long-term independence from gas imports?
Germany is committed to achieving climate neutrality by 2045. This means that in the long term, fossil energies will be replaced entirely by renewables, and this must be accompanied by a substantial reduction in energy consumption in future, with alternatives used to cut climate-damaging greenhouse gas emissions.
This major transformation will affect almost every area of social and economic life. Heat pumps and renewables-based district heating, energy upgrading of buildings, electric cars instead of combustion engines, an attractive local public transport network and the expansion of rail: all these measures, and many more, will help to ensure that we become less dependent on imports of oil and gas while strengthening our sovereignty. However, not enough has been done so far, and policy-makers are urged to act now and take the much-needed decisions on the future direction of travel.
Anke Herold is the Executive Director of the Oeko-Institut. She was previously an EU negotiator at the international climate negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Her main area of work is national, European and international climate policy. Dr Roman Mendelevitch is an expert in energy system and electricity market modelling at the Oeko-Institut’s Berlin office. He develops scenarios of the future energy supply and designs market-based instruments of climate policy. Dr Christoph Pistner is the Head of the Oeko-Institut’s Nuclear Engineering and Facility Safety Division. His work focuses mainly on nuclear facility safety, systems analysis and risk assessment. He is also the Vice-Chairman of the Reactor Safety Commission (RSK) of the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection (BMUV).
Podcast „Brauchen wir die Kernenergie für den Klimaschutz?“ mit Dr. Christoph Pistner, Leiter des Bereichs Nukleartechnik & Anlagensicherheit am Öko-Institut [Podcast: Do we need nuclear energy to protect the climate? With Dr Christoph Pistner, Head of the Oeko-Institut’s Nuclear Engineering and Facility Safety Division]
Faktencheck „Atomkraft“ hier im Blog [Nuclear power: fact check – here in the blog]
Newsmeldung „Informationen zur Lage der Kernkraftwerke in der Ukraine“ auf der Website des Öko-Instituts [News: Information on the status of nuclear power plants in Ukraine, available on the Oeko-Institut website]
Informationen zur Studie „Klimaneutrales Deutschland 2045. Wie Deutschland seine Klimaziele schon vor 2050 erreichen kann“ von Öko-Institut, Prognos und Wuppertal Institut [Information about the study “Towards a Climate-Neutral Germany by 2045: How Germany can reach its climate targets by 2050” by the Oeko-Institut, Prognos and the Wuppertal Institute]
Referenced energy data: sources
NB: The figures stated here are based on gross consumption and the calorific value of natural gas.
Eurostat: Imports of natural gas by partner country: table nrg_ti_gas, net imports and natural gas import quantities from Russia
Authors’ own calculations, based on destatis (Tables 066 and 067) and a comparison with BDEW (2022): Share of heat and power cogeneration in natural gas consumption at electricity production facilities
AGEB: Energiebilanz and BDEW (2022): Share of total energy consumption from natural gas, by sector
BDEW (2022): Kurzfristige Substitutions- und Einsparpotenziale Erdgas in Deutschland. Fakten und Argumente. Bundesverband der Energie- und Wasserwirtschaft (BDEW), Berlin. [Short-term substitution and savings potential of natural gas in Germany: Facts and arguments; published by BDEW, Berlin].
Uranium dependence on Russia: sources
European Supply Agency 2020
Council Regulation (EU) 2022/428 of 15 March 2022 amending Regulation (EU) No 833/2014 concerning restrictive measures in view of Russia’s actions destabilising the situation in Ukraine, OJ L 87 I/13
World Nuclear Association 2022