And then there were eight… This weekend, the Grafenrheinfeld nuclear plant in northern Bavaria will shut down permanently. It is the first nuclear plant to close since 2011.
After 33 years in operation, the nuclear reactor at Grafenrheinfeld – the oldest one in operation in Germany – will ramp down one final time this Saturday, June 27. With more than half of its fleet now being dismantled, Germany is developing expertise in a lucrative future market: safely tearing down and decommissioning nuclear plants. Europe faces a massive nuclear phase-out with or without an official declaration; the Europeans may only have a few nuclear plants in operation by the 2030s.
Up to now, Germany has only completely dismantled three small nuclear reactors. In Bavaria, the Niederaichbach plant was switched off in 1974 after 18 months (not years) of power production. In 1995, it became the first nuclear reactor in Europe to be completely disposed of. With a rated capacity of 106 MW, it was quite small, however. And the cost of dismantlement (280 million deutsche marks) exceeded construction costs (230 million marks). As the example of another reactor in Stade shows (closed in 2003 after 31 years of operation), the cost ratio between construction and dismantlement has not improved. Stade cost 150 million euros to build. Dismantlement should have already been finished at a cost of 500 million, but the latest estimate is 1 billion euros (report in German).
Will the lights go out?
The 1,345 MW plant in Grafenrheinfeld produces roughly one sixth of the electricity generated in Bavaria. It is the second nuclear reactor to be closed in the German state after Isar I was one of the eight switched off immediately after the Fukushima accident in 2011. In 2010, some 73 TWh of electricity was produced in Bavaria annually. As of Sunday, that amount may fall closer to 50 TWh (assuming no other power plants ramp up production in the state to fill the gap).
By the end of 2022, another three nuclear reactors are to be shut down in Bavaria – Gundremmingen B in 2017 (the next one in the schedule nationwide), followed by Gundremmingen C and Isar II in 2021 and 2022, respectively. Can Bavaria fill this gap – can Germany?
Since the 1970s, politicians have warned that nuclear is needed to prevent blackouts. Back then, these experts argued that new reactors would need to be built, but the focus now is on the effect of shutting existing ones off. The Environmental Minister of the neighboring state of Baden-Württemberg presented a study last fall finding that “secure capacity” in southern Germany might fall short of demand by the end of the nuclear phase-out – including neighboring countries. This statement was made by a Green Party Minister. The findings are not scare-mongering from industry representatives or nuclear proponents.
The Bavarian state therefore faces a potential shortfall in power supply. Fortunately, there are both solutions and enough time to take action. Unfortunately, the Bavarian government seems determined not to implement any solutions (nor does it want nuclear waste.). It opposes further development of wind farms (which, admittedly, would not remedy the situation much as long as wind turbines cannot be switched on to cover high demand), and it opposes new high-voltage power lines to bring in electricity from the north.
Proponents of renewables do not like the proposed high-voltage power lines either, but current market data clearly reveal a problem. At times of peak wind power production (mainly in northern Germany), a lot of re-dispatching takes place in the south – meaning that the electricity from the north is not reaching the south.
Drawn up by the grid operators themselves, the plans for new power lines lack credibility because the proposals look like a wish list; the need is determined by the very firms who will build the projects. However, a number of recent workshops have taken place in Berlin between analysts at the Institute for Applied Ecology and environmentalists from the German environmental NGO Deutsche Umwelthilfe, among others. The goal was to verify or falsify the need for the proposed grid expansions. One environmental expert told me (off the record) that the analysis confirmed the need for the very power lines proposed.
The good news is that Germany apparently has honest grid operators. The bad news is that honesty does not generate electricity, and the Bavarian government seems unwilling to fix the problem. Somebody else will have to step in.
German energy journalist Jakob Schlandt’s recent finding is therefore all the more interesting. The country’s Network Agency recently announced a 3.1 GW increase of the backup reserve by 2016, slightly more than the two nuclear plants that will go off-line by 2017. By 2019, however, that reserve shrinks to its lowest level in years. The Agency’s report argues that the grid upgrades should be finished by 2019.
Schlandt was perspicacious enough to ask the Network Agency if it was considering separating Austria and Germany, which currently have a single price for electricity trading. The agency said yes. If split, Austrian prices could fluctuate independently, and any shortage in Bavaria would be better reflected in prices on wholesale markets, thereby reducing the need for a backup reserve, which represents a kind of capacity market in addition to the wholesale market. As Schlandt points out, the move is the opposite direction that the EU wants its member states to go. In essence, Bavaria needs to get back on board with the Energiewende. No power shortage need occur if they act now.
Incidentally, Grafenrheinfeld is known to practically everyone in Germany from a famous novel entitled Die Wolke. Written in the wake of the Chernobyl accident, the book describes what a similar meltdown would look like in Germany based on the location of Grafenrheinfeld. The novel became standard reading at German schools. A reported 1.4 million copies have been sold in Germany alone (it was translated into 16 other languages as well – report in German). The closing of Grafenrheinfeld will thus be seen within Germany as a symbolic act. The novel did not have a happy ending. Hopefully, the real power plant will.