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ENERGY

German nuclear power debate resurfaces over Russian gas threat

Germany should extend the lifetime of its nuclear plants to avoid an "extreme scenario" in which a Russian gas stop could wipe 12 percent off the economy, a government advisor said Thursday.

The nuclear power plant in Gundremmingen, Swabia, stopped operating on December 31st 2021 as part of Germany's nuclear phase-out.
The nuclear power plant in Gundremmingen, Swabia, stopped operating on December 31st 2021 as part of Germany's nuclear phase-out. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Puchner

Prolonging the operational lifetime of Germany’s remaining reactors could “create some breathing space”, Veronika Grimm, a member of the government’s council of economic advisors, told the Funke media group.

Germany turned its back on nuclear energy following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, with its last three plants set to go offline at the end of the year.

But the debate over prolonging the life of nuclear in Germany has been reopened amid fears Russia could cut off gas supplies as retaliation against the West over its backing for Ukraine following Moscow’s invasion.

In an “extreme scenario”, the German economy could shrink by 12 percent if Russia turned the taps off, Grimm said.

More conservative estimates put the impact between “minus 0.5 percent and minus six percent” depending on decisions made about saving gas over the summer, she said.

READ ALSO: How much energy does Germany need to get through winter?

Like many of its neighbours, Germany is highly reliant on Russian energy imports to meet its needs.

Europe’s largest economy this week decided to reactivate mothballed coal-fired power plants in response to reduced gas deliveries from Russia via the Nord Stream pipeline.

But extending the life of nuclear plants beyond the end of the year was “currently not an option”, not least for “safety reasons”, a spokesman for the economy ministry said at a regular press conference on Wednesday.

Keeping the plants open “will not work”, Chancellor Olaf Scholz told the Münchener Merkur paper on Tuesday.

Finance Minister Christian Lindner of the liberal FDP party denied that there was a row within the three-way coalition with Scholz’s Social Democrats and the ecology Greens.

But he added that he was “not satisfied that we are extending climate-damaging coal but not even considering the possibility of nuclear energy”.

READ ALSO: Why Germany is discussing whether people should ‘freeze by law’

The conservative state premier of Bavaria, Markus Söder, has also pushed for an extension, saying this week the move was “certainly” possible.

But the boss of German energy company RWE, the operator of one of the remaining reactors in the fleet, told the Die Welt daily it was “too late”.

Security issues as well as the limited availability of fuel rods created hurdles to keep the plants going beyond the end of the year, he said.

READ ALSO: Why Germany’s nuclear exit is posing tough questions about its energy future

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ENERGY

Gas crunch pushes German glassmaker to the brink

In 400 years, Heinz-Glas, one of the world's biggest producers of glass perfume bottles, has seen off many crises - including World Wars and the oil shock of the 1970s in the last century alone. But Germany's current energy emergency strikes at the heart of its very existence.

Gas crunch pushes German glassmaker to the brink

“We are experiencing an exceptional situation,” Murat Agac, deputy chief executive of the family-owned company founded in 1622, told AFP.

“If there is a halt in gas supplies… then glass production will very likely disappear” from Germany, he said.

To make glass, sand is heated to temperatures of up to 1,600C and gas is the most frequently chosen source of energy.

Until recently, a glut of gas flowing to Germany via a pipeline from Russia had helped keep production costs low, allowing Heinz-Glas to book annual revenues of some €300 million.

With competitive prices, exports made up 80 percent of the glassmaker’s total output.

But this economic model is now being called into question after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

READ ALSO: Energy crisis to labour shortage – Five challenges facing Germany right now 

Moscow has cut gas supplies to Germany by 80 percent, in what is believed to be a bid to weaken the resolve of Europe’s biggest economy in backing Ukraine.

Berlin is scrambling for alternative energy sources to replace the resource that once made up 55 percent of its total gas imports.

The consequence: soaring energy prices.

For Heinz-Glas, that has meant a “ten- to 20-fold increase” in costs compared to 2019, said Agac.

READ ALSO: German government fears millions of heating systems could fail in winter

‘3,000 football fields of solar panels’ 

Not only Heinz-Glas, much of Germany’s industry is buckling under the gas supply crunch.

Many companies are drawing up emergency plans as the German government has warned that Russian gas could stop flowing entirely.

With winter looming, the crisis is reaching fever pitch.

Chemicals giant BASF is looking at replacing gas with fuel oil in its second-biggest German factory.

Henkel, which specialises in adhesives and sealants, is considering whether its employees can work from home.

But the consequences of a total halt in Russian gas flows could be irreparable for many companies.

At the Heinz-Glas factory in Kleintettau, opened in 1661, around 70 tonnes of small glass bottles are produced each day, moulded by the heat of the furnaces.

An employee inspects flacons on an assembly line at the German glass producer Heinz-Glas Group in Kleintettau, Germany on August 3rd, 2022.

An employee inspects flacons on an assembly line at the German glass producer Heinz-Glas Group in Kleintettau, Germany on August 3rd, 2022. Photo: Ronny Hartmann / AFP

The delicate vessels adorned with intricate motifs are then sent to the company’s clients — including its biggest, French group L’Oreal — which fill them with perfume.

At every step of the production process — from making the material with quartz sand to the final sculpting of the bottle — heat is essential.

At the company’s second-biggest factory in the mountain village of Piesau, a cut in gas would permanently damage its glass furnace, said Agac.

To ward off the danger in the short term, Heinz-Glas has invested in stocks of liquefied gas, which can be driven in by trucks.

But that triples the energy bill, and would still not be sufficient – the two German factories need the equivalent of “3,000 football fields of solar
panels” to operate.

In the long term, replacing the entire gas system with electric infrastructure would cost €50 million, Agac said, a sum which the company cannot afford.

READ ALSO: Reader question – Should I modernise my heating system in Germany?

Even in the factory of Kleintettau, where furnaces are powered by electricity, around 40 percent of the industrial processes still require gas.

“We need state support,” said Agac, warning that the firm may otherwise be forced to shift production elsewhere, such as India or China, where it already has a factory.

For the 1,500 employees of the company in Germany, the future looks cloudy.

“I’ve reached an age when it doesn’t matter so much for me anymore. But younger people must be fearing job losses,” said Michaela Trebes, 61, inspecting hundreds of little flasks emerging from the production lines.

But for now, the management remains optimistic that Heinz-Glas can pull through.

Since 1622, “there have been enough crises… in the 20th century alone, World War I, World War II, the oil crisis in the 70s, many, many critical situations. We survived them all,” said Agac.

“We will somehow also overcome this crisis.”

By Florian CAZERES

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