Crisis mode for Robert Habeck and Steffi Lemke: The Economics Minister had to defend himself on Friday at a special meeting of the Energy Committee, the Environment Minister was summoned to a special meeting of the Environment Committee. The reason: a report from the magazine “Cicero” on Thursday, which accuses the Greens of having been deceptive when it came to phasing out nuclear power. The magazine is based on internal documents from the two Green-led ministries from spring 2022, which it fought for in court.

Germany actually wanted to completely phase out nuclear power at the turn of the year 2023. But then came the Russian invasion of Ukraine and with it an impending energy crisis – suddenly the nuclear phase-out was once again in question: Should it actually be implemented in such a situation? Could continued operation ease the situation somewhat? And under what circumstances would a term extension actually be technically possible?

At that time, the FDP and the Union called for the nuclear power plants to continue to operate (at least temporarily), but many Greens had reservations about this. In the end, after a word of power from Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD), there was a short-term extension of operations until the end of April 2023, the so-called stretch operation.

The magazine makes serious accusations: “The Green Party’s masterminds” “manipulated” the decision to extend the term. The two responsible state secretaries in the two ministries agreed that technical arguments that could speak for continued operation “should not even be made known”. The two ministries rejected the article’s presentation, saying it was “shortened and without context,” according to the Ministry of Economic Affairs. The “conclusions drawn from this” are “not accurate”.

But for the Greens, this is a dangerous narrative: especially from the conservative corner, they are repeatedly portrayed as a party “driven by ideology,” and voters often reflect this impression in surveys. So the opposition has found something to eat: “The old suspicions are confirmed,” wrote the parliamentary managing director of the Union faction in the Bundestag, Thorsten Frei, on “X” on Thursday, “when nuclear power was phased out, parliament and the population were lied to.” The Union is threatening a committee of inquiry.

Depends on who you ask. It is no secret that the Greens have fought for an end to nuclear power for forty years. It is also known that they no longer wanted to question this end in the last few meters. Habeck had nevertheless announced at the time that he would have a non-ideological examination of whether an extension of the term could help to avert the impending gas crisis in the coming winter.

The “Cicero” report at least raises doubts about how “unideologically” the issue was treated in the houses. But was the result wrong?

If you ignore the then internal, now public dispute over notes, then what matters most is the test report, which was intended for the public. At least the facts here seem to be presented correctly: decommissioned nuclear power plants cannot be brought back online without a new permit, continued operation of the three reactors that were still running at the time would be possible after a new safety check, but long breaks and new fuel rods would be required – so it doesn’t help in winter. Option 3, “stretch operation”, would be feasible, although it would not deliver more electricity in total, but could cushion load peaks in winter. However, there would already be more coal-fired power plants in reserve. Conclusion: “not recommended, even in view of the current gas crisis”.

That is at least a politically acceptable conclusion. The fact that the Chancellor still decided differently six months later, in the light of new facts and sentiments – i.e. in favor of the train company – had to do with his policymaking authority. This too was not a technical decision, but a political one.

Essentially, it is about contradictions between notes from the specialist departments and the official assessment of the Environment and Economics Ministries. Two papers raise questions. In a note from the responsible working group in the Ministry of the Environment dated March 1, 2022, “scenarios” for a term extension that would be compatible with nuclear safety were played out. Two days later, the head of the nuclear department wrote his own submission, according to which an extension of the service life “would not be justifiable from a safety perspective.”

While the expert note considered an extension of the term to be at least conceivable, the paper at management level closed this option. Was the advice of your own working group ignored? Probably not, but he was passed over. However, this is not a scandal per se. A political decision simply means that it is made based on ideological attitudes. This is also the case in many other questions. But what the contradictions show is how biased the political leadership in the ministries was. While Habeck emphasized that he wanted to make the nuclear power plant decision in a non-ideological manner, his helpers relied primarily on arguments that corresponded to their line.

You could make it easy for yourself and say: The lights didn’t go out this winter 22/23. So everything is good? One thing is certain: there was more controversy then and now about the little bit of electricity from nuclear power plants than is appropriate for its importance in the energy industry. The year before, the three reactors that were still running at the time had together produced around six percent of the total amount of German electricity. Because of the stretch operation, they could no longer run at full load in that winter. Instead, more coal-fired power plants came online.

The question remains whether the electricity prices would at least have been cheaper with nuclear power in the mix. Answer: Not really. This is due to the merit order model, which has now been forgotten. After that, the last kilowatt hour demanded always determines the electricity price. And that last kilowatt hour – regardless of whether with or without nuclear power – would always have been the more expensive coal-fired electricity.

The three operators of the recently shut down nuclear power plants do not want to comment on the allegations against Habeck and are keeping a low profile. The energy company RWE, operator of the Emsland nuclear power plant in Lower Saxony, confirmed to Capital – like the stern part of RTL Deutschland – that company boss Markus Krebber had presented his assessment of nuclear energy to the Federal Ministry of Economics both in a conversation and in writing.

In a letter from RWE to Habeck, which was available to Stern, the energy company warned in February 2022 that continued operation would be “associated with significant legal and economic risks.” “We cannot and do not want to comment on how this note was assessed in the ministry,” said an RWE spokeswoman. The company has wanted to move away from nuclear power for a long time. Krebber said around the summer of 2022 that he considered a possible extension of the term to be backwards. It would be better to accelerate the energy transition.

Something similar can be heard from EnBW, operator of the nuclear power plant in Neckarwestheim. Boss Georg Stamatelopoulos recently explained in a Capital interview that they are working on an accelerated phase-out of coal and hydrogen-capable gas power plants. When asked, an EnBW spokesman said that the Federal Government had been made aware of its willingness to hold discussions and provide information “in the interests of a secure energy supply”. “Use was made of this, but it is not EnBW’s responsibility to publicly document these discussions.”

It is extremely unlikely that the nuclear power plants that were shut down a year ago will be restarted. For the operating company of Isar 2 in Bavaria, Preussen Elektra, the continued operation of the power plant is “no longer an issue”. Shortly before the shutdown in 2023, boss Guido Knott had struggled with the political decision and talked about continuing.

But that is now off the table: “The debate about the continued operation of Isar 2 is history,” writes the company in response to Capital’s request. “We have now received approval for decommissioning and dismantling and the dismantling of Isar 2 began on April 2nd.” Therefore, Cicero’s research will not be commented on.

The operating companies are therefore focusing on dismantling the systems. In Germany there is a clear legal situation according to which the nuclear power plants have been shut down and are now being dismantled, reports RWE. EnBW also relies on the German Atomic Energy Act. There is “no longer an operating license for electricity production” by nuclear power plants and “no basis for putting this back into effect,” said the EnBW spokesman. “Against this background, a discussion about the further use of nuclear power is over for us.”