Nuclear plants in Germany can produce another 2630TWh of electricity and then must shut down permanently, under the terms of an agreement between the Social Democrat-Green ruling coalition and the country’s nuclear utilities. The two parties had been edging warily towards agreement for months, and finally reached the compromise in early June. In return, the operators will have an assurance that they can operate without political interference.

Under the terms of the agreement, each of the German reactors will be assigned a figure for the amount of power it can generate before being shut down. This is partly determined using a reference figure for annual power generation for each plant, which will be an average of the five best years between 1990 and 1999. The figure is escalated to allow for uprating, improved performance, and the needs of the grid, but is capped at 2630TWh across the industry.

Within their totals, operators can switch ‘production rights’ between plants, and it is expected that this will keep the most efficient reactors in operation longest. No closure dates have been specified for any reactors, except Obrigheim and Stade, which are required to close by 31 December 2002.

One sticking point on the agreement had been the fate of Mulheim-Kaerlich, in de facto shutdown since 1988. To solve this, the agreement allows operator RWE extra kWhs, equivalent to the power generated by the plant during the 11 years in which it operated. (This is included in the 2630TWh total.) The plant will not restart.

Utilities have given the agreement a resigned welcome. It is positive, according to the German Atomic Forum, because all the utilities can be sure they will be in operation for several years. In the past utilities have spent an enormous amount of time on political discussion, the Forum says, and the policy of some states to interrupt operation has made it difficult to get permission to start up even after maintenance and refuelling outages. The plant operators will now be able to run their plants for ‘security and economy’.

The operators also see the agreement as providing ‘breathing space’ before more decisions are made: they know that in the event of a change of government the Christian Democrats, now in opposition, would repeal the agreement. Elections are due in around two years and the outcome is too close to call, depending as it does not only on the Christian Democrat and Social Democrat vote, but also on the possible need to form a coalition with the Liberal or Green parties, who currently hold 9% and 7% of the vote, respectively.

The agreement also sets out plans for waste management. No more fuel will be sent for reprocessing after July 2005. Until then, fuel can be sent for reprocessing at BNFL or interim storage at Ahaus or Gorleben. Within five years utilities will be expected to construct and license on-site storage facilities. The compromise is one that none of the parties favours: local authorities are likely to be unhappy that fuel remains on site, while the operators would prefer to transport fuel to the existing stores at Gorleben and Ahaus. But according to the Forum, “They will be happy if waste disposal is fixed in any way”, because at present, “Every transport is a catastrophe”, accompanied by violent protest. Investigation of the salt dome at Gorleben as a potential permanent site will be delayed for 3-10 years, for more technical and safety discussions.

The agreement as it stands need only be ratified by the Federal Government, as the Atomic Law is a Federal matter, and by the shareholders of the utility companies. Their agreement or otherwise should be clear in the next few weeks. The Federal Government does not need the agreement of the States, although they are lobbying hard to be consulted. In practice, the political will that has brought the agreement at the Federal level will need to be replicated in the states: their jurisdiction over aspects of plant licensing has been a major cause of the plants’ problems, and they will have to be persuaded to take a more conciliatory approach if the agreement is to be successful.