20 min read

THE FUTURE OF NUCLEAR ENERGY IN GERMANY

04 August 2022

Crises have been weighing on the global economy for almost two years. The energy industry in particular has been hammered by the Ukraine invasion as oil and gas imports from Russian sources are now realized with big (ethical) question marks. Rising prices, supply bottlenecks and alarmingly empty storage facilities have been the result, not only in Germany. Already in September 2019 – long before the war - the German government declared an “emergency plan” with three levels and reached level 2 (alert level) end of June 2022. At level 2, the goal is to fill gas storages by reducing gas consumption, e.g. through reducing the electricity production with gas power plants. For these reasons, the discussion on nuclear power has gained new momentum. Even the German Minister of Finance Christian Lindner - contrary to his statement from the end of 2021 - wants to rekindle a debate on nuclear power. But what does the situation actually look like and how realistic is a return to nuclear power really?

CURRENT SITUATION OF NUCLEAR ENERGY

Briefly on the current situation. End of June 2022 there are 415 active reactors worldwide, producing roundabout 10 percent of the global electricity. In Germany, there are currently still 3 active nuclear power plants - Isar 2, Neckarwestheim 2 and Emsland. In total, German nuclear energy reactors produced 5,8 percent of the electricity in 2022 and 13,3 percent of the electricity in 2021.

As a result of the Fukushima accident, in June 2011 it was decided to phase out nuclear power in Germany. This means that the aforementioned reactors will be taken off the grid on December 31, 2022. Out of concern about a gas shortage due to the war in Ukraine, an extension of the operating time of the three power plants is being discussed in order to secure the power supply. So far, however, the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action (BMWK) and Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection (BMUV) have rejected the extension because the risks would outweigh the benefits.

ARGUMENTS FOR A FURTHER USE NUCLEAR ENERGY

Due to the Ukraine war followed by reduced capacities of Russian gas floating into the German gas grid, the gas demand shall be reduced through various actions. Less electricity production from gas-powered plants is one of them. The production gap could be filled by nuclear energy. According to experts, curtailing output in the summer allows reactors to continue operating beyond December 31 for a short time. This could reduce gas demand in winter 22/23 in the electricity sector. This increase in overall production is exactly what many envision in the lifetime extension. There are several arguments to do that:

  • buying less gas from the Russian Putin regime increases the independence from Russia and transfers less money to them, which is also used for military purposes.
  • Secondly, the security of supply especially in winter will be increased if we use less gas in summer and thus can fill German gas storages.
  • Moreover, a higher production from nuclear energy and therefore less gas demand would help to hold down gas prices for the German industry and households.
  • Some other European partners are not willing to support the German calls for saving and sharing gas all around Europe, as long as Germany intends to close running (nuclear) power plants.
  • There are political supporters of a nuclear energy prolongation, esp. from the conservative party CDU and the liberals FDP, but also from economic and employer associations.
  • Nuclear power is highly efficient and they produce nearly emission-free baseload power. 1 gram of uranium supplies as much energy as 2.8 tons of hard coal, 10 tons of lignite or 1.9 tons of heating oil. From a environmental perspective they are much more preferable than the current gap filler: coal plants, that are among the biggest CO2 emitters in Europe.
  • Nuclear power has medium flexibility and thus is well suited for covering the base load of the grid. Therefore, also in a future without gas and a high share of renewable energy, nuclear energy would have a value for baseload production.

THEORETICAL AND PRACTICAL HURDLES ARE TOO BIG TO OVERCOME

At this point, the first problems already arise. The operators of the power plants have been planning for closure at the end of 2022 for years.

  • Foremost there is no political consensus in Germany. Especially the Green party, known as a anti-nuclear-party for decades, will have difficulties to explain to their voters that under their government participation nuclear energy was prolonged

  • Furthermore, politics pose additional hurdles. A required change of the law or even a new law is hardly imaginable especially because of the participation of the Green party in the current government. The Bundestag would have to amend the Atomic Energy Act to prepare for a lifetime extension in the first place.

  • In addition, the corporations' operating licenses for the plants are expiring, and renewal would drag on for years, and contracts with partner companies and suppliers have also long since been terminated.

  • All owners of nuclear power plants received billions of Euros as compensation for a earlier shutdown. As this money is fixed and secured, why should they now be in favor of the endeavor to run their plants longer with unknown costs and risks? Corporations such as RWE and E.ON even clearly reject these plans in public.

  • From a technical viewpoint, the continued operation of a nuclear power plant requires new fuel rods, whose lengthy manufacturing and delivery process takes longer than 12 months. According to estimates, new fuel rods would therefore not be available until the fall of 2023. However, according to some media reports there might be solutions for this.

  • Under the perspective of a shutdown end of 2022, human resources capacities were planned accordingly. Nuclear experts have long be send to pension or trained for other jobs and if the required workforce would be available after the planned shutdown is unclear.

  • Of course, the safety issue and the open question of radioactive waste repositories should be mentioned here as well. Prolonging rather old nuclear power plants with a potential lack of skilled labor will continue the safety debate and for sure produce additional radioactive waste.

  • In addition, the long-term economic viability of a nuclear power plant should also be mentioned here. Meanwhile, nuclear power is simply too expensive by comparison, at about $167 per megawatt hour (unsubsidized levelized cost of energy) in 2021. The generation costs of solar and wind power have plummeted to less than $40 per megawatt hour. In addition, there are astronomical construction financing costs (€27 billion for the Hinkley Point nuclear power plant in the UK), repository problems, safety tests and risks, susceptibility to failures, and continued employment of personnel. Adding new nuclear power plants to the electricity grid takes years, sometimes decades. Therefore, the operators estimate that a nuclear power plant would only be economical after many years of runtime. In other words, renewable energy production is simply significantly cheaper than nuclear energy.

In summary, traditional nuclear energy technologies do not have a positive cost-benefit-ration. That is why fans of nuclear energy claim for newer technologies to defend the nuclear energy industry.

THE TURNAROUND: CAN NEW TECHNOLOGICAL INNOVATION RESCUE THE NUCLEAR POWER INDUSTRY?

Internationally, there are countries that operate reactors and are increasingly focusing on new innovations. The following innovations are promising to improve the problems of cost and safety.

  • A new reactor design - called Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) – goes back to the origin of nuclear energy – small, mobile reactors to fuel submarines and big military ships. Due to the smaller size they can be manufactured in factories with economies of scale reducing the cost and accelerating the process. They have <300 megawatt, often new passive and safe cooling systems, and in some projects they are combined with geothermal energy for heat storage. Rolls Royce hopes to have approval by 2024 and first reactors online by 2029. The startup NuScale till 2026. With the Akademik Lomonossow Russia already owns a ship as mobile nuclear power plant.
  • New materials are also expected to bring progress. Research is being conducted, for example, into the use of radioactive residues as fuels. New fuel and cooling processes (e.g. TRISO, Thorium, Molten Salt Reactors) are expected to withstand higher temperatures, require less cooling water and generate more process heat.
  • Nuclear fusion would be disruptive to the process of generating nuclear energy. It would provide an inexhaustible source of energy with less radioactivity and greater safety, requiring no final storage. However, demo reactors are not scheduled to be planned until 2025 and ready for the market in 2060, which is too late in light of the Paris Climate Agreement.

CAN VENTURE CAPITAL-BACKED STARTUPS BRING THE NECESSARY BREAKTHROUGH INNOVATION?

Debates and hopes on fusion energy are not new. For example, the history of the well-known experimental ITER research reactor project goes back to 1985, while the follow-up project DEMO, which shall transfer the experiences and knowledge to a commercial-like reactor feeding in electricity to the grid - is supposed to start in 2025. In addition to public projects and large corporations, there have recently also been more and more startups that focus on nuclear energy. They move exactly in these new spheres and strive for such innovations. The venture capital investments in these fields are massive, especially in Northern America. Professional investors and governments but also High Net Worth Individuals provide huge financing in big funding rounds in startups like Commonwealth Fusion or Helion Fusion. Additionally, investors like Temasek, Eni, Equinor, Google, Tencent or Samsung bring a lot of industry and engineering know-how to the table, while investments from entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Dustin Moskovitz, Jeff Bezos or Tobias Lütke add a lot of entrepreneurial drive and experience.

Fusion seems to be one of the big bets and it is really remarkable that also traditional Venture Capital investors like Khosla Ventures, Tiger Global, Sequoia, NEA, SET Ventures or Earlybird place their bets in this market. Altogether, this mix of expertise, network and financial resources might outperform the previous public, mainly research-based activities of the last decades in terms of commercialization speed. However, even in the most positive scenarios it is hardly imaginable that fusion can play a major role to achieve the Climate Goals of Paris. Mankind is simply running out of time. Moreover, it is still unclear if fusion can reach or even beat current electricity production prices. So far it is rather uncertain if fusion reactors can produce more energy as they consume for a longer period of time.

 Below is a listing of various startups in this field including their financing and investors (as of June 2022).

Company Location Financing Finance / Venture Capitalists

TAE Technologies

Foothill Ranch, USA

~ 917m USD

e.g. Charles Schwab, Google, New Enterprise Associates

Helion Energy

Everett, USA

~ 578m USD

e.g. Dustin Moskovitz, Mithril, Y Combinator

Commonwealth Fusion

Cambridge, USA

~ 2bn USD

e.g. Bill Gates, George Soros, Temasek, Eni, Equinor, Google, Khosla Ventures, Tiger Global

NuScale Power

Corvallis, USA

~ 470m USD

e.g. Samsung, Doosan

Newcleo

London, UK

~ 433m USD

e.g. Exor Seeds, LIFFT

General Fusion

Burnaby, Canada

~ 322m USD

e.g. Tobias Lütke, Jeff Bezos, Temasek, SET Ventures, Entrepreneurs Fund

Zap Energy

Seattle, USA

~ 203m USD

e.g. Shell Ventures, Chevron Technology Ventures,Lowercarbon Capital, Valor Equity Partners, DCVC

Tokamak Energy

Oxford, UK

~ 123m GBP

e.g. Winton Ventures, Hans-Peter Wild

First Light Fusion

Yarnton, UK

Yarnton, UK

e.g. Tencent, Braavos Capital, Oxford Sciences Innovation

  Terrestrial Energy

Oakville, Canada

~ 69m USD

e.g. US Department of Energy, DCVC

Energy Singularity

Shanghai, China

~ 400m CNY

e.g. Sequoia Capital China, NIO Capital

Marvel Fusion

Munich, Germany

~ 35m EUR

e.g. Heinz Dürr, Nicolas Berggruen, Earlybird, Possible Ventures

Phoenix

Madison, USA

~ 27m USD

e.g. US Army, Knox Capital, Wisconsin Investment Partners,

Seaborg Technologies

Copenhagen, Denmark

~ 26m USD

e.g. Lars Nielsen, EU, PreSeed Ventures

   Zeno Power

Washington, USA

~ 22m USD

e.g. DCVC, Techstars, Tribe Capital, 1517 Fund

  CorePower

London, UK

~ 20m USD

N/A

LeadCold

Stockholm, Sweden

~ 19m USD

e.g. EIT InnoEnergy, Essel Group

Deep Isolation

Berkeley, USA

~ 18m USD

e.g. SkyDeck Berkeley, ARPA

Focused Energy

Darmstadt, Germany

~ 15m USD

e.g. Alex Rodriguez, Tony Florence, Prime Movers Lab

TerraPower

Bellevue, USA

~ 9m USD

e.g. Bill Gates, Intellectual Ventures

 

 

NO (LONG-TERM) RENESSAINCE FOR NUCLEAR ENERGY IN GERMANY

The future of nuclear energy does not look promising. Building new nuclear power plants in Germany seems not worth it as competing technologies like renewable power plants (e.g. photovoltaics, on-shore and off-shore wind, biogas, hydropower) in combination with green hydrogen electrolysis seem more beneficial. These technologies are market ready, mature, clean and cheap and their adoption is crucial for the energy transition. Extending the operating life of nuclear power plants sounds like a possible option for the time being, given the current crisis situation. However, it becomes clear that there are almost insurmountable hurdles, both economically and politically. Under a Green government participation, however, this is hardly conceivable. The shutdown of plants, lack of operating funds and terminated contracts make the operation of reactors in 2023 practically nearly impossible. However, in times of crises beggars can’t be choosers. To secure an affordable and secure energy supply in Germany might even cause opponents in the Green Party to change their mind and prolong nuclear plants for a limited period of time. Who wants to be hold responsible if big industrial companies go bankrupt and fire their workforce or even apartments stay cold this winter?

In the long term, only a few countries - including our neighbor France - rely on nuclear power and regularly encounter huge problems with outages and electricity market turbulences because French nuclear power plants are too old and require lot of maintenance. New technologies and designs can only hope for approvals, testing and market entry in several years to decades. Startups are supported by large amounts of funding and government involvement, especially in North America, but the need of quick solutions is urgent. It is foreseeable that also this trend will largely bypass Germany with a few exceptions like Marvel Fusion. However, even if fusion power will most likely not rescue our environment and planet due to the timeframes, mankind should further develop those technologies as the offer more long-term opportunities, e.g. in the space industry.

Topics: energy
Eric Weber

Written by Eric Weber

Following positions at B2B- businesses in IT and wholesale he worked for 2,5 years at HHL and the SMILE startup initiative in the field of entrepreneurship and as freelance consultant. He holds a MSc from Leipzig University and a PhD from HHL.

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