Nuclear Industry Shows Their True Green Cards
The fallout from Fukushima has had ripple effects in the nuclear industry across the world, but nowhere outside of Japan has the impact been so significant as in Germany. Here the ensuing frenzy has resulted in a moratorium on nuclear power plant permit extensions and the closure of seven nuclear plants. Now the nuclear power plant operators have fired a shot across the political bow: they have stopped supporting green energy.
Why is the German nuclear industry investing in green power? And why are they stopping now? The story starts in 2005, when the German conservative party, the CDU, promised to overturn a law by the socialist-green coalition to close down all nuclear power by 2021. The CDU won the national elections. To calm public protest, they negotiated a deal with the nuclear industry: The nuclear operators would invest a good percentage of the windfall profits from extending nuclear power plant permits in funds for the expansion of alternative energy. The nuclear investment was expected to boost green energy funds by €16.9 billion (US$24 billion) in total, approximately 300 million euros in 2011-2012 alone.
On Saturday 9 April, all nuclear operators — RWE, EnBW, Vattenfall and E.ON — announced they were stopping payments into the green energy fund. It is particularly interesting that the nuclear operators are not keeping a low profile during what was announced as merely a three month moratorium to review the planned permit extensions. On the one hand, the nuclear operators are within their rights. The windfall profits expected from permit extensions (subject to extensive safety reviews) have turned into sudden, unanticipated red ink as power plants have undergone politically ordered shutdowns. Thus, the monies earmarked for the green energy fund do not exist. (It should be noted that the nuclear operators intend to put the agreed payments into a collateral account until resolution of the issue.)
But the strategy may backfire. The peremptory and unilateral cessation of payments makes the investment fund look more like a political bargaining chip than ever. What was arguably a reasonable political strategy to use nuclear plants as a bridge to greener energy now lays in tattered disarray, exposed as politics pure rather than logical risk management and strategic energy planning.