Germany completes nuclear phaseout; better news from Finland

April 17, 2023, 3:13PMNuclear News
The Neckarwestheim nuclear power plant in Germany.

Ignoring a last-minute plea from a long list of scientific luminaries (including Nobel laureate Steven Chu and climate scientist James Hansen) to reconsider, as well as recent polls showing pronuclear sentiment among a majority of its population, Germany shut down its last three operating nuclear power plants late Saturday, ending 60-plus years of electricity generation from fission. (Germany’s first nuclear power plant, Kahl, was commissioned in 1961 and closed in 1985.)

Those three facilities—RWE’s Emsland, PreussenElektra’s Isar, and EnBW Kernkraft’s Neckarwestheim—were previously scheduled to close at the end of 2022, in keeping with Germany’s nuclear phaseout policy. In October 2022, however, chancellor Olaf Scholz announced his decision, later approved by the German cabinet, to allow the plants to operate “beyond 31 December 2022 until 15 April 2023” to ensure sufficient power generation for the coming winter.

Emsland, Isar, and Neckarwestheim all house single-unit pressurized water reactors rated at 1,335 MWe, 1,410 MWe, and 1,310 MWe, respectively. RWE Nuclear's technical director, Nikolaus Valerius, waxed elegiac in his statement on Emsland. “Nuclear energy at RWE was a real success story,” he said. “Our last nuclear power plant in Lingen alone generated electricity safe and carbon free for 35 years. The output generated at the Emsland nuclear power plant, amounting to more than 390 terawatt-hours, could cover Berlin’s current electricity needs for almost 31 years.”

Nuclear reaction: The completion of Germany’s nuclear exit was, unsurprisingly, both panned and praised. Wolfgang Kubicki, cochair of the Free Democratic Party, declared that “the shutdown of the world’s most modern and safest nuclear power plants in Germany is a dramatic mistake that will have painful economic and ecological consequences for us.” Jens Spahn, deputy leader of the conservative Christian Democrats, dubbed it a “black day for climate protection in Germany.”

Also displeased with the news was energy expert Mark Nelson, who via Twitter noted, “First night of Germany’s grid without nuclear: it’s bad. It’s night. No sun. Wind has dropped to almost nothing. Most of German ‘renewables’ right now is [sic] richly subsidized bioenergy with half the net CO2 emissions of an efficient gas power plant.”

Anti-nuclear advocates, of course, were celebratory, and at least one was something more than that. Mélanie Vogel, member of the French Senate and cochair of the European Green Party, tweeted, “Sex is good, but have you tried having your country shutting down its last nuclear power plants in 30 mn?” (Vogel is in a relationship with Terry Reintke, a member of the European Parliament from Germany.)

Background: Germany’s nuclear phaseout policy was established by law in 2002 but seemed on somewhat shaky ground with the election of the pronuclear Angela Merkel as chancellor in 2005. In March 2011, however, just days after the Fukushima Daichi accident, Merkel surprised the world by announcing that her government would be moving forward with the phaseout. (Prior to the Fukushima accident, Germany obtained about one-quarter of its electricity from 17 nuclear power reactors.) Eight units were shut down immediately, and by May of that year, the government had announced a policy to close all remaining nuclear power plants by 2022.

Better news: Finland’s Olkiluoto-3 has at long last commenced regular electricity production, Teollisuuden Voima Oyj announced Sunday.

“The production of Olkiluoto-3 stabilizes the price of electricity and plays an important role in the Finnish green transition,” said Jarmo Tanhua, TVO’s president and chief executive officer. “The electrification of the society continues, and environmentally friendly electricity production is undoubtedly one of the top trump cards that Finland has.”

More background: Located in western Finland, the Olkiluoto facility also houses two 890-MWe boiling water reactors. Units 1 and 2 began commercial operation in October 1979 and July 1982, respectively.

Construction of Olkiluoto-3 began in 2005. Following years of delays, initial criticality was finally achieved in December 2021 and grid connection was accomplished in March 2022. At the time, TVO projected that regular electricity production would begin in late July 2022. In April of last year, however, the company announced a postponement to September, due to inspection and repair needs regarding the cooling system of the unit’s generator. A series of additional postponements were announced later in 2022 and earlier this year.

Europe’s first EPR, Olkiluoto-3 is also the first new Finnish reactor in four decades and one of only three new reactors in Europe in the past 15 years. (Romania’s Cernavoda-2 began supplying electricity to the grid in August 2007, and Belarus’s Belarusian-1 in November 2020.)

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