Nuke-Free Germany Isn't Exactly Nuke-Free
Set in the lush, rolling Bohemian hills of the Czech Republic, the twin reactors of the Soviet-designed Temelín nuclear power plant lie just 44 miles from the German border. Since last spring, when Chancellor Angela Merkel began shutting down Germany’s nuclear reactors, Temelín has stepped up supplies of electricity to Bavaria, where big German manufacturers including BMW, Audi, and Siemens have factories.
There’s a double paradox here. Germany says its future will be nuclear-free. For the present, though, it’s nuclear not-so-free, relying more than ever on electricity from atomic-powered neighbors. What’s more, the Germans have been turning off their reactors because they don’t want a Fukushima-style meltdown spewing radiation across their country. Yet the Temelín reactors, which are in good shape, are close enough to the border to rain down radiation on Germany should a serious accident occur.
Until their nuclear shutdown began, the Germans exported an average of 1,400 gigawatt-hours a month, almost 3 percent of Germany’s electrical production. Now, though, the Germans are importing about 2,000 gigawatt-hours a month. Much of that is coming from France and the Czech Republic, the Continent’s top two electricity exporters. The imports of electrical power cost the Germans $139 million a month, based on current prices tracked by Bloomberg.
With the remaining nine German reactors scheduled to go offline by 2022, no one seems more eager to step into the breach than the Czechs. They’re in talks with vendors to build two more reactors at Temelín, while planning new reactors at the aging Dukovany nuclear station and at least two other sites. This is part of a push to increase nuclear’s share of the country’s power-generating capacity from the current 32 percent to more than 50 percent by 2050. “Nuclear is the answer,” says Roman Portužák, who is involved in drawing up the country’s energy strategy at the Czech Industry and Trade Ministry. “How fast, how many reactors we’ll build—that’s still under discussion, but we’re definitely moving in this direction.”
The Germans have said they will replace nuclear capacity with wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources. “Germany in the long run won’t need significant electricity imports,” says Michael Kauch, chief environmental spokesman for the Free Democratic Party, a partner in Merkel’s ruling coalition.
Achieving that goal won’t be easy. Ever-changing weather conditions mean that reliable supplies of wind- and solar-generated power aren’t always available. And while northern Germany has extensive wind and solar farms, not enough high-voltage power lines carry electricity south to Bavaria. Building new lines could take 5 to 10 years. “The German government has shot itself in the foot,” says Lawson Steele, a utilities analyst at Espirito Santo Investment Bank in London. “Germany will probably be O.K. for three to four years, and then it’ll start running out of capacity.”
The Czechs say they are going nuclear to replace their dependence on fossil fuels, including gas imports from Russia. Yet about 20 percent of the Czech Republic’s electricity production is already exported, and the addition of several new reactors could increase that figure. Analysts say heftier exports would help CEZ, the Czech state-controlled utility. “I see a big opportunity for CEZ and other Czech companies to export energy to Germany, especially given their plans to beef up nuclear,” says Clive Roberts, a utilities analyst at Standard & Poor’s in London.
The Czechs also supply electricity to Austria, which has no nuclear plants. The Austrians use Czech-furnished power to pump water into mountain reservoirs, where it is later used to generate hydropower—some of which is then sold to Germany. However hard they try, the Germans can’t escape nuclear power.
— With assistance by Stefan Nicola