Could Germany keep its nuclear plants running?



(Recasts Aug 18 explainer, updates links)

FRANKFURT, Sept 2 (Reuters) - German grid operators are close to releasing the results of power transmission system stress tests, factoring risks from an escalation in the Russian gas supply crisis, as the country considers longer lifespans for its nuclear reactors.

Nuclear utilities have said they could operate the three remaining nuclear reactors beyond their scheduled year-end closure date, but it is up to Berlin to get the ball rolling.

The outcome of the stress tests could prompt the government to grant extensions as it attempts to power the economy and ward off a recession seen as increasingly likely if faltering Russian gas exports stop entirely.

Former Chancellor Angela Merkel initiated legislation to halt the use of nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, with a majority of voters in favour, but attitudes have shifted amid fears of fuel shortages.

A reversal or postponement of the exit plan would mean utilities E.ON EONGn.DE , RWE RWEG.DE and EnBW EBKG.DE having to re-arrange decommissioning schedules and staffing provisions, while legal, safety and liability issues would have to be worked out.

Here are answers to a few urgent questions:

WHY THE NEED?

Russia halted gas supplies via Europe's key supply route on Wednesday, intensifying an economic battle between Moscow and Brussels and raising the prospects of recession and energy rationing in some of the region's richest countries.

Moscow says Western sanctions over the invasion of Ukraine are hindering equipment repairs, while Europe says this a pretext to use gas as a political weapon, an argument Russia rejects.

Germany, Russia's single biggest gas buyer, cut use of the fuel by 15% during January-June. While it is exploring other sources of supplies, it remains dependent on Russia.

The Bundesnetzagentur energy regulator says tight supply means there will be problems keeping consumers warm and industry functioning, but Germany is increasingly better prepared.

Gas-fired plants accounted for 10% of power generation in July.

The output of some of these could be replaced by nuclear reactors as well as power stations burning imported hard coal or locally mined brown coal.

That, in turn, would free up more gas for industry and 41 million German households that use gas for heating.

E.ON, RWE and EnBW operate 4,300 megawatts (MW) of nuclear power capacity via their respective Isar 2, Emsland and Neckarwestheim 2 reactors.

Along with three other reactors which closed at the end of last year, nuclear generated 12% of Germany's electricity but that has fallen to 6% this year.

Germany also has solar and wind options and is developing liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals.

WHAT DO THE OPERATORS SAY?

E.ON Chief Executive Leonhard Birnbaum says he sees no technical obstacle to the safe continued operation of Isar 2 without having to procure fresh fuel rods. He has put the possible additional reach at a few months.

RWE Chief Executive Markus Krebber also says the plants could theoretically run in the first weeks of next year, but beyond that would require new fuel elements, or even the revitalisation of capacity shut in 2021 - decisions the government would need to make.

EnBW Chief Financial Officer Thomas Kusterer takes a similar line.

WHAT IS THE SYMBOLISM BEHIND GERMAN NUCLEAR?

The Green Party, now part of the coalition government, traces its origins to the environmentalist movement of the 1970s, which cited security risks and the unresolved question of nuclear waste. It would have to make a U-turn.

Restating the usefulness of nuclear power would vindicate critics of Merkel's move and populist voices.



FACTBOX-How dependent is Germany on Russian gas?

Nuclear, coal, LNG: 'no taboos' in Germany's energy about-face Germany to speed renewables push due to Ukraine crisis

UPDATE 2-Germany vetoes nuclear power extension, aims for LNG terminal in 2024

UPDATE 1-Germany says undecided on nuclear plants extension UPDATE 1-Gas crisis spurs Germany to mull extending life of nuclear plants

Germany's gas crisis generates nuclear dilemma for ruling Greens

UPDATE 1-German economy minister rules out keeping nuclear plants running to save gas



Reporting by Vera Eckert, Christoph Steitz, Tom Kaeckenhoff and Markus Wacket; Editing by Kirsten Donovan and Mike Harrison

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