The Philippsburg 2 nuclear reactor located in the German state of Baden-Württemberg was taken offline permanently as scheduled on the evening of December 31, 2019. This event affirms the current German government’s resolve to phase out the use of nuclear energy by 2022 and expand the contribution of renewable energies in domestic electricity production. The demolition of the power plant structure that houses the Philippsburg 2 reactor is expected to immediately begin following the shutdown of the reactor. This process could take as long as 15 years to finish. The Philippsburg nuclear power plant was one of the seven remaining active nuclear power plants in Germany. The other six are slated for closure over the next two years.
The Philippsburg 1, which was an older reactor located at the same plant site, was already decommissioned in 2011. The Philippsburg 2, which had been in operation for 35 years up till the end of 2019, had a generation capacity of 1,468MW and accounted for 6% of the electricity supply for Baden-Württemberg. While the Philippsburg nuclear power plant has never been positively received by the surrounding communities throughout its existence, the dismantling of the plant will take a lot of patience and resources. After the shutdown of the Philippsburg 2 on December 31 last year, the next task, which is going to be carried out this year, is the pulling down of the two cooling towers of the power plant. The demolition of the entire complex and the cleanup of the whole site will continue over the next decade and beyond.
Since shuttering a nuclear power plant involves not only the demolition of the plant structure but also the disposal of radioactive waste, the funding of this costly undertaking is based on the “user pays” principle. The operator of the plant (usually a utility) is obligated to set up and maintain a fund that can adequately cover the costs associated with the eventual dismantlement of the facility at the end of its service life. EnBW, which operates the Philippsburg nuclear power plant, has stated that it has already set aside the necessary cash reserves for knocking down the plant structure and removing the related wastes. EnBW has also estimated that the total cost of the whole exercise will run up to 7.5 billion euros.
Germany is among the many countries around the world that have changed course in their energy policies and decided to abandon nuclear power since the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Right after that catastrophe, the German government proceeded to rapidly decommission 8 of the 17 operating nuclear reactors across the country and set a target date for the total phase-out of nuclear power. In the following years, various measures were introduced to gradually reduce the share of nuclear and coal-fired generation in the country’s energy mix. At the same time, programs and subsidy schemes have also been established to raise the portion of electricity supply sourced from renewable energies. As a result, renewable technologies now account for the largest share of the country’s electricity production at 46%. Power plants that burn coal and natural gas capture the second largest share of 40%, and the share from nuclear power has been scaled back to just 14%.
Germany is a major consumer of coal for energy purposes. However, the German government after consultation with industries and academia announced in January last year that it aims for a “coal exit” toward the end of the 2030s. The electricity supply gap attributed to the 2022 nuclear phase-out has to be bridged by other energy sources including renewables. Hence, coal-fired generation, which makes up about 35% of the country’s energy mix, will have to remain as an option for a while. The government’s current plan calls for the closure of all 84 coal-fired power plants in the country by the end of 2038. Whereas the UK and Italy have pledged to transition out of coal-fired electricity by 2022, Germany will move forward with the phase-out at a slower pace.
(News source: TechNews. Photo credit: Lothar Neumann, Gernsbach, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 2.5].)