Article - Conventional Energy Sources

Nuclear energy and uranium

Introduction

Nuclear reactor symbolizes uranium and nuclear energy; Source: Mauritius Images / imageBROKER / Lilly

© Mauritius Images / imageBROKER / Lilly

As a society, Germany has decided that it wants the overwhelming share of its future energy supply to be generated from renewables. At present, there are 7 nuclear power plants still operating in Germany, generating approximately 10,000 MW. These will be successively shut down, with the last ones closing by the end of 2022.

Financing of the nuclear phase-out

On 16 December 2016, the Bundesrat adopted the Act Reorganising Responsibility for Nuclear Waste Management after the Bundestag had endorsed the Act. The Act entered into force on 16 June 2017 following its approval under state aid rules by the European Commission. It stipulates the responsibility for nuclear waste management and ensures the long-term financing of shut-down, dismantling and disposal. Further information can be found here.

Background of the nuclear phase-out

In autumn 2010, the Federal Government adopted an Energy Concept that sets the course for Germany’s transition to the age of renewables. In this Energy Concept, nuclear energy was assigned the role of 'bridging technology' to be used up to the point where renewables have become reliable and economically viable enough to replace them, and the necessary infrastructure has been put in place.

Following the disaster at the Japanese nuclear power plant of Fukushima in March 2011, the German government decided to accelerate the energy transition and to completely phase out power generation in German nuclear power plants by the end of 2022.

The accident made it necessary for the residual risk posed by nuclear power to be reassessed by society. Germany’s Reactor Safety Commission started a comprehensive analysis of the risks associated with the nuclear power plants operating in Germany. In addition to this, the German government appointed an independent Ethics Commission, which gave its opinion on all the issues related to Germany's future energy supply. The findings presented by these Commissions were the basis of the political decisions that were taken after this.

Nuclear power plants in Germany

A total of 37 nuclear power plants (NPPs) have been built in Germany and put into commercial operation since 1962. Some of them only operated for a short time.

24 NPPs were commissioned between 1962 and the end of 1980. In the same period, the licences for 5 nuclear power plants expired.

Between 1981 and the end of 2000, another 13 NPPs were commissioned for commercial operation, whilst 13 nuclear power plants lost their licences. Of these 13 nuclear power plants, 6 had been operating in former GDR territory and were shut down in 1990 (1 reactor in Rheinsberg, 5 in Greifswald - built between 1966 and 1989). At the end of 2000, there were still 19 nuclear power plants commercially operating in Germany.

The chart on the right-hand side gives an overview of the nuclear power plants that lost their licence for commercial power operations between 2001 and 2017 and of those whose licences will expire in 2022 at the latest.

The Grafenrheinfeld nuclear power plant ceased its operations in 2015; the Gundremmingen B nuclear power plant followed at the end of 2017. Next to lose its licence is the Philippsburg 2 nuclear power plant at the end of 2019, followed by the Grohnde, Gundremmingen C and Brokdorf nuclear power plants at the end of 2021. The three newest plants, Isar 2, Emsland and Neckarwestheim 2, will be shut down no later than the end of 2022.

Other applications for nuclear technology

Other than in commercial nuclear power plants, nuclear technology in Germany is also used in a wide range of medical procedures, in industry and in research. Germany will need to continue to use nuclear technology for these high-tech applications beyond 2022. The necessary precautions associated with nuclear safety and radiation protection will continue to be upheld.

Nuclear-technology industry

There are a large number of enterprises working in various fields of the nuclear technology industry in Germany. These include suppliers of uranium, companies specialising in enriching uranium and producing fuel elements, firms that plan and construct nuclear installations, and companies specialising in the transport, handling and storage of nuclear waste and in shut-down and remediation. On top of these firms, there are also upstream suppliers and service providers. Many companies in this industry also export their goods and services to countries outside Germany.

The nuclear power plants in Germany are to be shut down by the end of 2022 and dismantled. 2Under the Atomic Energy Act and in line with the polluter-pays principle, it is the operators of nuclear power plants (NPPs) that must pay for the shut-down and dismantling of the NPPs, and for the management of the nuclear waste produced by them, including the cost of final storage.

The Act Reorganising Responsibility for Nuclear Waste Management (317 KB, in German) entered into force on 16 June 2017, following its approval by the European Commission under state-aid rules. The Act had been adopted by the Bundestag and Bundesrat in December 2016. At the same time, a fund for the financing of nuclear waste disposal (fund), which is organised as a foundation under public law, was established.

The Act assigns the respective responsibilities around nuclear disposal and provides for secure, long-term financing for the decommissioning and dismantling of nuclear power plants and the disposal of nuclear waste, without either shifting the costs on to taxpayers or jeopardising operators’ business.

In other words, this piece of legislation ensures that the operators of nuclear power plants will continue to be in charge of managing and financing all activities linked to the decommissioning and dismantling of the installations, and to the correct packaging of nuclear waste (dismantling obligations).In contrast, it is the Federal Government that will be responsible for organising and financing interim and final storage. On 1 July 2017, the funds to cover the costs for interim and final storage, which amount to €24.1 billion, were transferred by the operators into the fund administered by the Federal Government.

On 26 June 2017, the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy and the executive directors of the energy companies signed an agreement under public law in recognition of the new division of responsibilities as assigned under the new legislation. This agreement has delivered legal certainty for both the Federal Government and the energy companies. It also puts an end to the many legal disputes that have been fought around the subject of nuclear-waste disposal and the phase-out of nuclear energy. You can find the text of the agreement here (PDF: 4 MB, in German).

The board – which is charged with establishing and supervising the foundation – convened for the first time on 19 June 2017 and took various important decisions of an organisational nature. Click here (PDF, 72 KB) for more detailed information on the division of responsibilities around the nuclear phase-out.

The Act is to implement the recommendations made by the Commission to Review the Financing for the phase-out of nuclear energy. This means that, for the first time, the responsibilities for organising and financing the disposal of nuclear waste will be brought together. The Commission (PDF: 1.18 MB, in German) was set up by the Federal Government on 14 October 2015. This expert commission was to draw up recommendations as to how to organise the financing for the shut-down and dismantling of nuclear power plants and for the management of nuclear waste in such a way that companies will be capable of meeting their long-term obligations under nuclear law. On 27 April 2016, the Commission completed this task by presenting its unanimous recommendations for action in a report to the Nuclear Energy State Secretaries Committee. You can find the Commission's recommendations in the final report (PDF: 969 KB, in German).

Expert report assessing the provisions made in the nuclear-power sector ('stress test')

The expert report assessing the provisions made in the nuclear-power sector ("stress test"), which was commissioned by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy on 10 October 2015, served as a major basis for the Commission's work. According to the report, the energy companies are capable of bearing the cost of dismantling the nuclear power plants and disposing of the nuclear waste. The provisions made for these purposes by the companies concerned totalling €38.3 billion are based on estimated costs in current prices amounting to around €47.5 billion. The experts have confirmed that the estimated costs are plausible and complete and that the provisions had been correctly incorporated into companies' balance sheets.

The German government had also commissioned a comprehensive study into the legal aspects of the provisions made in the nuclear-power sector and the related need for reform.

Report in accordance with Section 7 of the Transparency Act – dismantling of nuclear power plants

In November 2018, the Federal Government submitted the first report to the German Bundestag on the financial provisions made by operators of nuclear power plants to fulfil their obligations related to the decommissioning and dismantling of plants and packaging of nuclear waste. The Bundestag has published the report (in German).

The report contains a summary of the assessment of the information provided by the nuclear power plant operators to the Federal Office for Economic Affairs and Export Control (BAFA) in the context of the reporting requirements pursuant to Section 1 of the Transparency Act. Operators are obliged to report each year to the BAFA on the provisions made to fulfil their obligations related to the dismantling of plants and on the liquid funds available for this purpose.

The information provided by operators for 2017 was verified by the BAFA. The report is based on the results of this verification. In this report, the BAFA draws the positive conclusion that there are no grounds for objection regarding the calculation of the amount of the provisions made by the companies and that there are no indications to suggest that the companies might not meet the requirements related to the dismantling of plants.

Research on the safety of nuclear energy by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy contributes to the high level of safety characterising German nuclear power plants, which is also recognised by other countries. The Ministry determines the state of the art in science and technology in safety assessments. The research projects that are supported provide e. g. calculating tools for the assessment and analysis of processes in nuclear power plants or examine the performance of materials under nuclear power plant conditions. This work also serves to maintain the know-how required in dealing with nuclear technology and radiation protection in medicine, industry and research.

In view of the international trend towards further use of nuclear energy, the Federal Government intends to maintain the know-how required to assess nuclear power plants in neighbouring countries as well as in order to be able to make proposals for their improvement if need be. Research on reactor safety is therefore being increasingly conducted in international cooperation, for example within the framework of the EU (Euratom) and the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency.

The Act Modernising the Repository Site Selection Act and other Legislation, which governs the selection process for a repository for heat-generating nuclear waste, entered into force on 20 July 2017. The new legislation stipulates how the recommendations made by the Commission on the Storage of High-Level Radioactive Waste (in German) are to be implemented. In doing so, it also implements a provision of the 2013 version of the Repository Site Selection Act, which had stipulated a revision of its own provisions in the light of the results of the work of the Commission on the Storage of High-Level Radioactive Waste.

The Repository Site Selection Act lays down the criteria that will exclude a site from being selected, minimum requirements for a site to be considered, and the criteria to be used when weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of different sites. Similarly, the Act also sets out the requirements in terms of organisational structures, the selection procedure and the ways in which alternative options must be considered and the public involved in the process. Furthermore, the legislation provides for a transparent procedure.

The aim of the open-ended site selection procedure under this Act is to conduct a science-based, transparent procedure without any advance stipulations (starting from a “blank map”) to find a site for a final repository, in particular for highly radioactive waste, which offers the best possible safety and security for a period of a million years. The process is to be completed by 2031. Regarding the site selection procedure, the Act stipulates the following:

  • The waste is to be stored within the territory of the Federal Republic and in a deep geological formation. This could be in rock salt, clay or crystalline rock.
  • The mine within which the repository is situated is to be sealed off permanently, but in a way that allows for the waste to be recovered during the entire operational stage and at any time during the 500 years following the sealing of the site.
  • A comparative procedure is to be used to single out the site that will be the most secure for a duration of one million years.
  • The selection process is to be designed as an inclusive, science-based, transparent and learning procedure that has built-in loops to ensure that decisons are called into question.
  • There are detailed provisions regulating the structure of the relevant bodies to ensure that the general public can participate in the process at the regional and national levels.

The OECD/NEA and the IAEA have confirmed that today’s state of the art already already allows for highly radioactive, heat-generating waste to be stored safely in deep geological formations.

Studies to assess the advantages and disadvantages of the various possible types of host rock (rock salt, clay, crystalline rock), of different repository designs and of different containers are being conducted as part of the dedicated research receiving funding from the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy and by the research institutions attached to the Ministry (Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (in German) and Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (in German)). Reports can be found on the websites of the Project Management Agency in Karlsruhe (in German), the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources and of the Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing.

Germany has officially approved Schacht Konrad (in German) as a final repository for low and intermediate level radioactive waste. Since 2007, this former mine is being transformed into a final repository where operations are due to start in 2027.

Ownership of the former final repository for low and intermediate level waste from the GDR in Morsleben (ERAM) (in German) transferred to the Federation when Germany reunified. The placement of radioactive waste in storage there ceased in 1998. Stabilisation measures have been carried out since 2003. The final repository is to be closed down and securely sealed for the long term.

The Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy is in charge of applications-oriented basic research independent of location on nuclear disposal, especially regarding the aspect of safety in the treatment and disposal of radioactive waste. The focus is on the question of safe handling and disposal of radioactive waste. The Economic Affairs Ministry has been funding scientific investigations into this issue for nearly four decades. The results achieved so far show that the final storage of radioactive waste can be safely undertaken in deep geological rock formations.

An important task for research is to lay the scientific and technical basis for creating a final repository especially for heat-generating radioactive waste. This includes the development of methods and techniques necessary for specific measures to prepare final storage, and methods and techniques for the planning, construction, operation and closure of a final repository. This research work also continually furthers the state-of-the-art in science and technology.

The focus of future research work will be on the following R&D fields:

  • Impact of extended intermediate storage times on waste and containers (R&D field 1)
  • Scientific principles governing the site selection (R&D field 2)
  • Final repository concepts and technology (R&D field 3)
  • Proof of safety (R&D field 4)
  • Knowledge management and social and technical issues (R&D field 5)
  • Monitoring nuclear materials (R&D field 6)

A more detailed description of the R&D work being conducted as part of the research into nuclear disposal can be found in the current paper underpinning the funding by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy for research into nuclear disposal (2015-2018) (PDF: 1.1 MB, in German). As it conducts its activities, the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy can rely on the support of the Project Management Agency in Karlsruhe (PTKA) (in German) based at the Karlsruhe Institute for Technology (KIT) (in German) and by its own research agencies, the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (in German) and the Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (in German).

The research work receiving funding from the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy is making a substantial contribution towards the creation, further development and maintenance of scientific and technological knowledge and skills and to fostering young talent in the field of the disposal of nuclear waste in Germany.

International cooperation on research plays an important role in this. For several years now, not only salt, but also clay and crystalline rock (granite) have been studied intensively to assess their properties and see whether they could serve as host rock. The work being conducted in underground labs in granite and clay have made it possible to arrive at findings that are being regarded as important components of a proof-of-safety, which is required to demonstrate that these types of rock are suitable for hosting a final repository. Demonstration experiments (including in situ experiments) are becoming ever more important in this context. The Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy has concluded a number of bilateral agreements on final storage with various international partners (Switzerland, Sweden, the U.S.A., Russia, France, China, the Czech Republic) and is also a founding member and partner of the Implementing Geological Disposal Platform for Technology (IGD-TP), which now has some 120 members from around the globe. All of these members are conducting research into nuclear disposal and share the goal of the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy to design safe final repositories.

The Deutsche Arbeitsgemeinschaft Endlagerforschung (DAEF) (in German) was founded on 16 January 2013. This independent working group wants to promote research and development in the field of final nuclear disposal by fostering cooperation between ints members. The DAEF will be providing expert advice to the Federal Government. Among the founding members of the DAEF are the most important institutions involved in final storage in Germany. The DAEF is headed up by Prof. Dr Horst Geckeis (KIT) and his deputy Dr Jörg Mönig (GRS).

When Germany reunified, the Federal Government took on sole financial and social responsibility for one of the country's largest and most challenging environmental restoration projects: the closure of the uranium ore mines and the rehabilitation of sites in Saxony and Thuringia which were contaminated with radioactivity and chemicals.

Uranium ore mining ceased in eastern Germany at the end of 1990. On the basis of the Wismut Act, the federal company Wismut GmbH was established in 1991 and entrusted with the task of rehabilitation. The aim is the sustainable, environmentally and economically sensible rehabilitation of the sites, protecting and serving the interests of the people living in the region. The level of environmental pollution has been significantly reduced since the work began in 1990. Wismut GmbH is based in Chemnitz and is working at the three sites of Ronneburg, Aue/Schlema and Königstein.

Further information on the former sites of German uranium ore mining and on rehabilitation concepts and results can be found here (in german).

Further information

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Press releases

  • 20/09/2017 - Press release - Conventional Energy Sources

    Federation, Saxony, Thuringia and Wismut GmbH sign declaration of intent on future handling of the “Wismut legacy”

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  • 26/06/2017 - Press release - Conventional Energy Sources

    The Federal Republic of Germany signs an agreement with energy utilities on financing the nuclear phase-out

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