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Atom vs. barrel. Russia's gas blackmail forces Germany to rethink its nuclear power phase-out

The EU's leading economy, Germany, has turned out to be one of the most dependent on Russian energy resources. The problem is that the country, as part of its «green deal,» has not only closed coal-fired thermal power plants, but also decided to completely abandon nuclear power, although the environmental damage it causes is minimal. Now Berlin, and with it the rest of Europe, cannot get off the Russian gas needle, continues to buy fuel from Moscow and indirectly finances Russian aggression in Ukraine, negating the effect of sanctions. In the face of declining Russian supplies, Germany has ended up putting its dirtiest thermal power plants - coal-fired ones - back into operation. Simultaneously, the debate about the need to return to nuclear power has resumed. However, it’s no longer possible to do it quickly, and Germany may face serious problems this winter.

  • Gas blackmail

  • Inherited energy crisis

  • Gas trap snapped shut

  • No coal, no peaceful atom

  • Nuclear power is the lesser evil

  • Coal instead of the atom

  • Working on mistakes or walking on rakes

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Gas blackmail

In mid-June Gazprom cut its supplies via Nord Stream by 40%, which led to panic on the markets and another surge in gas prices. The Russian company attributed the cut to the imposition of Western sanctions, in particular Canada's refusal to return a gas turbine engine for the Nord Stream pipeline. The unit had been undergoing repairs at the plant of its manufacturer, Siemens Energy, in Montreal. On July 11, Gazprom completely suspended gas supplies for 10 days, calling it planned technical maintenance.

The European Union interpreted such actions as energy blackmail and breach of contractual obligations and called for the preparation for a complete halt in supplies. But Ottawa soon agreed to return the turbine and also released Gazprom's other gas pumping equipment from the sanctions. Nord Stream, though not at full capacity, was up and running. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz convinced the Canadian prime minister to meet Putin's demands. European countries breathed a sigh of relief. However, Gazprom soon announced that the documents provided by Canada for the unit raised questions. On July 27, the company announced that another turbine was shut down because it needed repairs. Russia again reduced its gas supply to Europe, now by 15%. The daily supply dropped from 167 million to 30 million cubic meters, which is one fifth of the planned capacity.

The daily supply of gas dropped from 167 million to 30 million cubic meters, which is one fifth of the planned capacity

The European Commission was not prepared for Russia’s cuts in gas supplies because its dependency on Russia was still too high. Amid those concerns, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder arrived in Moscow. He told reporters that he had come “on vacation.” But his wife revealed the real purpose of his trip: Schröder, a friend of Putin and former board member of Rosneft, came to participate in unofficial gas talks. Germany was the main negotiator, which is not surprising: the country is the most dependent on Russian supplies in the European Union. The German media have been publishing frightening reports about the consequences of energy shortages for businesses, and the Minister of Ecology and Energy Robert Habeck urged citizens to follow his example and shower for no more than five minutes in order to save water.

Inherited energy crisis

The current chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has to take the rap for Germany's situation. Some even predicted his resignation because of the energy crisis.

«A bitter blame sport has erupted over the disastrous choice to exit from nuclear energy a decade in the past, leaving the nation wholly reliant on Russia. The fame of the once-idolized Angela Merkel is in tatters, however her successor, Olaf Scholz, is held accountable by two thirds of voters for the failure to safeguard power safety,» writes Britain's The Telegraph in an article headlined «Hypocritical Germany brought to its knees.» The article says that Germany talked most of all about the green transition and ecology but can't get off the oil addiction. According to the article, Germany is now despised in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states.

«Germany has no arguments against Russian gas blackmail,» writes Britain's The Spectator and calls Germany the weakest link in the EU. Such attacks play into the hands of Russian propaganda. Journalists and experts are actively discussing Scholz's resignation on television, trying to convince the public that the main target of the sanctions is European leaders, not Moscow.

In fact, Scholz is forced to deal with the consequences of his predecessors' policies. The history of Germany's dependence on Russian (and at that time Soviet) energy goes back to the 1970s. On February 1, 1970, representatives of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Soviet leadership signed theier first major agreement on the construction of a pipeline from Siberia to Western Europe, the so-called gas-for-pipes «Deal of the Century». The Federal Republic of Germany was to supply the Soviet Union with machinery and equipment, including large-diameter pipes for the construction of the pipeline, while the USSR was to supply the German industry with at least 52.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas over a period of 20 years.

Since then, for decades, Germany has been developing relations with the USSR and then Russia according to the Wandel durch Handel («change through trade”) principle. According to this idea, authoritarian countries could be reformed through dialogue, cooperation, and joint business. Proponents believed that adherence to this principle led to the Berlin Wall being torn down and contributed to the unification of Germany.

Throughout this time, the U.S. and NATO kept warning that such cooperation would deprive Germany of its energy independence. As early as 1970, U.S. diplomat and national security advisor Henry Kissinger wrote to President Richard Nixon, «Will he [former German Chancellor Willy Brandt] be able to control what he started?» However, those cautions were taken lightly in Germany. Berlin would never rely on the Soviets for even 10 percent of its gas supplies, the head of the Economics Ministry's gas department argued in secret talks with the alliance.

Gas trap snapped shut

Fifty years later, U.S. and NATO fears have come true. In 2020, Russia supplied Germany with more than half of its natural gas, about a third of its oil and half of its coal imports.

«An arrangement...has turned into an instrument of aggression. Berlin is now funding Russia's war against Ukraine by paying for fuel supplies,» writes The Guardian’s columnist Patrick Wintour.

«For thirty years, Germans lectured Ukrainians about fascism,» Timothy Snyder, a professor at Yale University in the United States and an expert on Eastern Europe, wrote on Twitter. «When fascism actually arrived, Germans funded it and Ukrainians died fighting it.”

At the moment, Germany is the world's second largest importer of Russian fossil fuels after China, and the largest of the European Union countries. In the first three months of the war, Germany bought $12.7 billion worth of Russian gas, accounting for about 13 percent of Russia's fossil energy - oil, gas and coal - export revenues. This money was used by Moscow to prop up the ruble and buy the artillery shells firing at Ukrainian positions in Donetsk, The Guardian writes.

The issue of rejecting Russian energy resources was the cornerstone of the sanctions arrangement. After Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, only the U.S. and Sweden completely abandoned Russian energy imports, reducing them by 100% and 99%, respectively. Germany, on the other hand, reduced its dependence by only 8% in May compared to March, one of the lowest results among the EU states.

Since the start of the war, EU countries have paid a total of more than 77 billion euros for Russian fossil fuels, which is almost six times the amount Ukraine has received in aid: according to the National Bank of Ukraine, it’s nearly $13 billion as of July 26. Germany is not the only country that faces gas shortages. But if Germany plunges into recession, it could drag the rest of Europe with it.

According to the sixth sanctions package, a total ban on crude oil imports from Russia to EU countries will take effect at the end of 2022. That means it is likely that Germany will be left without fuel. The country is trying to find new sources and diversify supplies as a matter of urgency, but it is difficult to make up for what has been lost - primarily because of the earlier decisions to abandon nuclear power and coal, which the country had been moving toward for decades.

No coal, no peaceful atom

In the late '60s, the German authorities assumed that nuclear power would be the main source of energy for the country. Between 1957 and 2004, Germany had launched around 110 reactors, including research units, and was actively building new ones. Before the Fukushima disaster in Japan, Germany generated about a quarter of its electricity from nuclear fuel, roughly the same amount as in the United States.

Gradually, nuclear power's share of Germany's total electricity production had been declining until it stopped at about 12 percent.

Discussions about nuclear power started as early as the 1970s, even before the Chernobyl accident, and became even more relevant afterwards. Not a single new nuclear power plant has been built in the country since the mid-1980s. The GDR had its own nuclear power plants, but after the reunification of Germany, they were closed due to the differences in safety standards. Under pressure from environmentalists, the federal government and the utility companies reached a so-called «nuclear consensus» in 2000. It was decided to prohibit the construction of new nuclear power plants and to gradually close the existing ones. It is safe to say that the opponents of nuclear power in Germany have won.

Currently, the country has three operating nuclear power blocks with a total capacity of 4 GW. Those are the Isar, Neckarwestheim and Emsland nuclear power plants. But, according to plan, they are supposed to be shut down this year. The question is, will the Scholz government do so, given the planned simultaneous phase-out of coal and the forced phase-out of Russian gas?

Of all the parties in Germany, the Greens have been the main critics of nuclear power. They have strengthened their position considerably over the past decades. In the March Bundestag elections, the Alliance 90/The Greens came in third place and entered into a coalition with Scholz's party, the Social Democrats. They also regularly spoke out against nuclear power.

A bet on renewable energy sources (RES), the rejection of the peaceful atom, and the phase out of fossil sources were the basis of Germany's energy transition project. The problem is that this plan did not foresee a Russian invasion of Ukraine and the need to urgently abandon Russian gas. One can forget about the energy transition now, but Scholz is being reminded more and more about extending the life of existing nuclear power plants as the only way out of the current situation.

Nuclear power is the lesser evil

Amid the rejection of Russian energy resources, the European Parliament has approved the use of the atom and the burning of gas as environmentally friendly. It’s a very common view, and now an official one in Europe. At the July 6 vote, 328 MEPs supported the temporary inclusion of nuclear power and gas as green investments. The vote was opposed by 278 deputies. The decision will, among other things, authorize the construction of nuclear power plants in Europe until 2045.

Nuclear power plants produce energy by fission. No burning of fossil fuels is involved, so nuclear power yields minimal carbon dioxide emissions. According to Standard Uranium, the use of nuclear power has reduced CO₂ emissions by more than 60 billion tons since 1970.

Even taking into account natural disasters and accidents (there have been 33 in the entire history), nuclear power has one of the lowest mortality rates per terawatt hour of electricity produced. The method used to calculate this is called «life-cycle assessment,» which experts use to try to determine the number of potential victims and casualties from the very start of work with an energy resource until the time it reaches the consumer.

Fossil fuels - coal and oil – turned out to be the most dangerous as expected. The process of their extraction is connected with high risks for workers during the whole production process. Solar energy and hydropower are considered relatively safe. For the former, the risks are associated with the installation of solar panels. Accidents at hydroelectric power plants, although deadly, are extremely rare. Following the same logic, nuclear power is also among the safest, with less than one death per 10 terawatt hours, a thousand times less than for coal.

Coal instead of the atom

The energy crisis in its current form could have been avoided if Germany had thought about diversifying its sources earlier. Now it is clear that renewable energies alone will not cut it. It takes time to build solar and wind power plants, and winter is less than six months away.

«The Greens in Germany have also consistently spoken out against fossil fuels, especially coal, as the dirtiest, most dangerous, and most polluting of all. Paradoxically, the German authorities considered them to be lesser evil than nuclear power, and, as a stopgap measure, they chose to restart the 16 coal and oil-fired thermal power plants that had been shut down instead of the nuclear power plants. It was also decided to extend the term of operation for another 11 thermal power plants.

Scholz called restarting the thermal power plants a tough decision and promised it would only be for a short time. Germany's carbon footprint in power generation is one of the worst in Europe precisely because of the country’s heavy reliance on coal. The country was planning to phase coal out by 2030. At the same time, it will be giving up Russian coal from August 1, and Russian oil from December 31, 2022.

Germany has one of the worst carbon footprints in Europe because of its heavy reliance on coal

Germany is also building terminals for liquefied natural gas (LNG), which will come from abroad. Three terminals are planned along the northern coast, but first the experts need to find and dispose of all unexploded munitions from World War II, The Wall Street Journal wrote. Approximately 1.6 million tons of weapons and explosives could be on the seabed in the North Sea and Baltic Sea area.

Interestingly, because of the heat in Germany, solar generation has broken records. But its influx is a drop in the ocean compared to the increased costs for air conditioning of homes and businesses.

Working on mistakes or walking on rakes

The advantages of nuclear power over other sources of green energy are obvious: Nuclear plants can generate electricity around the clock, unlike solar or wind power plants, which depend on the weather; also resources for nuclear power are almost unlimited. Fuel costs are low but building a nuclear power plant is a very expensive and time-consuming task. That is why there is no talk yet about building new nuclear power plants in Germany, only about extending the lifetime of existing plants. But that too is technically difficult. Olaf Scholz claimed that the fuel rods will run out before the end of the year, and it would take a year to a year and a half to get new ones if they are ordered now.

Representatives of other countries are also asking Germany not to shut down the nuclear power plants. The minister of climate and energy policy of the Netherlands, Rob Jetten, stated it was stupid to do that amid the energy crisis and especially on the eve of winter. The three remaining nuclear power plants could generate between 6% and 11% of the annual power output, a tangible amount when every watt counts. This figure could be boosted by reopening plants that have already been shut down, but that would be a much longer and more complicated affair.

Scholz wants to wait for the results of the second power safety stress test before making a decision. The government says it won't make a decision until a few weeks from now. Berlin doesn't have much time - cold weather is coming to Europe soon. The war unleashed by Russia in Ukraine is not over. The question is whether the German government will have the political will to leave the nuclear power plants in operation and finally renounce its plans to rely on Russia for fuel. Or will the Wandel durch Handel approach prevail again, and Russian energy resources will flow into Germany - under the influence of the German-Russian industrial lobby and Putin's ability to bribe and corrupt European politicians.

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