German utilities and government clash over nuclear ‘bad bank’

Monday, May 12, 2014

Germany’s nuclear industry is fighting Berlin over a plan to transfer the risks of shutting down facilities to a publicly owned foundation that would act as a “bad bank”.

The power companies are engaged in a decommissioning exercise with an estimated cost of more than €30bn after Berlin announced an accelerated exit from nuclear energy following the Fukushima disaster in 2011. The work includes demolishing nuclear plants and disposing of radioactive waste.

German utilities Eon, RWE and EnBW have discussed the creation of a state-owned foundation to oversee the decommissioning process. Under their plan, the utilities would transfer to the foundation billions of euros in reserves that they have built up to pay for demolition and disposal. In return, the German government would shoulder the risk for any cost overruns.

But that proposal, first reported in Der Spiegel on Sunday, was rejected by German environment minister Barbara Hendricks. She said: “The full responsibility for the safe phasing out, closure, decommissioning and interim storage of nuclear waste lies with the energy companies.”

One German energy executive said on Sunday that while the idea had been discussed, there were no concrete plans. Eon, RWE and EnBW all declined to comment.

The proposal is the latest sign of strain between Berlin and utilities, which have clashed in the courts over the closure of nuclear plants and the validity of a nuclear fuel tax.

The fight comes at a time when German power companies are struggling because the favourable treatment given to renewable energy has battered the profitability of their conventional electricity plants.

The country’s seven oldest nuclear plants were all taken offline immediately after the Japanese disaster, while an eighth plant that was offline at the time stayed shut: the remaining nine are to be closed down by 2022.

Eon said in March that it intended to shut the Grafenrheinfeld nuclear plant in Bavaria seven months before schedule because of its lack of profitability.

That plant, in a state that is home to some of Germany’s most successful manufacturers, will now close in May 2015.

Berlin’s abrupt decision to phase out nuclear energy represented a U-turn on a 2010 deal to extend the lives of nuclear plants. The companies agreed, in that deal, to a tax on nuclear fuel, which was introduced at the start of 2011 – and remains in place, despite the change of policy.

A court in Hamburg ruled in April that the German state should repay more than €2.2bn in nuclear fuel taxes to the utilities.

However, this decision is not legally binding and the case has been referred to the European Court of Justice.

RWE is pursuing a civil claim for damages over the decision by the state government of Hesse to order the closure of the Biblis nuclear power plant after Fukushima.

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