Germany phases out nuclear reactors because they are getting old

A key aspect of the German Energiewende is phasing out nuclear power. Anti-nuclear advocates praise this move as courageous, while nuclear proponents criticize it as reckless. In fact, there is nothing particularly courageous or reckless about Atomaufstieg: it is a remarkably rational policy to deal with the aging of the nuclear fleet and in-line with Germany's pre-Fukushima nuclear power managment of retiring reactors during their planned life-span and after they have paid-off the initial investment. Let’s turn to the facts.

Between the 1960s and the 1980s there were 31 larger nuclear power reactors constructed in Germany (including former East Germany)[1]. Nine reactors were shut-down between 2002 and 2011 including 7 immediately following the Fukushima Daichi accident in Japan. Despite its swiftness, the post-Fukushima move was not particularly dramatic: all of the closed reactors were between 31 and 36 years old (as were the reactors shut down in 2002 and 2005). More or less exactly the same is planned for the nine reactors which are still operating. Their shutdown is scheduled for between 2015 and 2022 when they will be 33–36 years old.

Outside of those 18 reactors which were retired after their planned lifetime, 13 reactors were closed due to safety and legal concerns mostly in the 1970s and the 1980s. 12 of such closures occurred between 1974 and 1994 and included 6 East German VVER-type reactors, 2 reactors closed following accidents in the 1970s, and 4 reactors failing to secure planning permits or fix faults pointed by safety inspections. One more reactor (Krümmel) was closed due to safety concerns in 2007 (it failed to safely re-start in 2009 and was eventually scheduled for decommissioning in 2011)

In summary, no large, safe and legal nuclear power reactor has ever been shut down in Germany unless it was between 31 and 36 years old. In fact, the political agreement on nuclear phase-out between the red-green coalition government and the utilities in 2002 allows each nuclear reactor to operate for 32 years. It also set a cap of 2,623 bln kWh for the total output of all reactors before their shutdown (Schreurs 2014). At existing electricity prices, that would ensure a few billion euro revenue per reactor (many of which were already in the middle of their lifestyles). This makes perfect sense: the economic pay-back period of nuclear power plants is typically between 20 and 30 years, whereas in engineering terms they are designed to operate between 30 and 40 years. In other words, shutting down a reactor under 30 is unprofitable whereas letting a reactor go over 40 is risky. Thus, the German government should be praised not for courage but for rationality and criticized not for recklessness, but for risk avoidance (there are still many countries operating nuclear power plants that are 40 and over).

A further question arises: how come that all Germans nuclear reactors are so old? I promise to answer in another POLET post.

  1. There were five more small reactors featuring experimental designs, built between 1962 and 1979 and closed between 1971 and 1991. The combined capacity of these reactors was under 130 MW (< 0,1% of the current total capacity in Germany) and they did not make much difference to energy supply.  ↩