Monday, May 19, 2014

Germans and Nuke Energy

In the past month, there's been a couple of stories in the German press over nuclear energy.  For an American looking over the episodes's a business saga versus government control versus taxpayer mess.

While Germany started reviewing the nuclear energy option back in the early 1960s....they didn't build an operational plant until 1969.  To be honest, there was a hefty amount of anti-nuclear commentary and it didn't exactly have the full public approval.  From the Chancellor Schroeder-era, there was a change in policy and all nuclear plants in operation were basically told to be shutdown by 2022 (basically a fifteen-year warning).

Under Chancellor Merkel and after the Japanese nuke episode.....closure went into absolute mode.  The present government has no desire to keep the nuke plant strategy past 2022.  What most analysts expect is that the last three nuclear power plants will come to some end in 2022.

Naturally, this means a change in profit strategies for the plant operators....four German companies.  For them, there is no reason to operate the plants....if sufficient profit isn't part of the strategy.

Somewhere in this mix....there's around forty billion Euro set aside to safely take the plants in existence down, and clean them up.  In the last few months, the four companies have attempted to engage the German government and work up a deal.....handing the forty billion Euro over into one fund....managed by the government itself, and let the government handle the last act (shut-down and clean-up).

Various segments of society aren't thrilled by this deal and don't want the government involved in the last phase....other than monitoring.

There are around seventeen reactor stations up....with eight of them in some stage of clean-up and shutdown.  So, some of the funds are already being used.  Will the forty billion be enough for the seventeen?  There's some belief won't be.  And some people even think that it never was intended to be enough....that the government (the taxpayer) would be pushed into the last stage, and people likely knew this even a decade ago.

What's the real estimated cost to shut them down?  You won't find any German agency that really has a firm answer on this.  I think it's something that is best left as a mystery, until the last day of operation.

There are two additional elements to this story.  Last week....a court decided that this tax-per-rod deal that Germany invented a couple of years ago....ISN'T legal.  So the roughly two billion collected so far?  It'd have to be paid back to the companies.  Is the court decision final?  No.  There is some review process, and it appears that it might take at least one additional year before it's absolute in nature.  The government?  I suspect they aren't that shocked and figured someone would notice the legality of the taxation.

The second element is that the nuclear companies (the four) have gone into court to establish that they would have made more profit....if the plants had been allowed to continue to the normal planned end (past 2022).  They want fifteen billion for the suffering and loss involved.  Yeah, a fair amount of money.....which would have to be paid by the government (the taxpayer).  The companies have hinted that they would drop this court case....if the government would take over the closure of the plants....which is an curious offer to consider.

The likely end scenario?  If the government presses the four companies to go ahead and sue them?  They might win the fifteen billion, but it'd be five to eight years before they'd get this money (my humble opinion, because German courts don't work that fast).  The idea of the companies parting this nuclear part of their business to some Russian take the present profits and just walk off with a lousy cleanup?  I could see this happening.

The truth here is that the German taxpayer paid for the research involved in the 1950s and 1960s.  The German taxpayer made a major contribution into the pot to get the plants built.  The German taxpayer paid for various safety concerns.  The German taxpayer is paying for the early shutdown due to the Japanese episode.  The German taxpayer will pay for the clean up episode at the end (which will likely go to double the forty billion Euro).   And if the planners really screwed up and don't have enough regular power or renewable power by 2022?  Well....naturally, the German taxpayer will pay France, Poland, or Russia for power off their grid....created by nuclear plants in their countries.

It's not a simple story.  It can't be a simple conclusion.  And it's loaded with what-if scenarios.

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