German court rules on reactor shut-down compensation

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Diet Simon

German taxpayers should pay nuclear power companies "appropriate compensation" for the government order to shut them down by 2022, the country's highest court ruled on December 6.

The Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) didn't put a figure on the compensation entitlement, but the industry talks about €19 billion (US$19.8 bn). Eon said the accelerated nuclear phase-out policy will cost it €8 billion, RWE did not provide any information but analysts estimate its claim at €6 billion euros, while Vattenfall claimed €4.7 billion.

The companies did not argue that they should be allowed to operate reactors for longer, but that they should be compensated. About 70% of Germans regularly reject nuclear power in opinion polls.

After the 2011 Fukushima disaster, the government of Angela Merkel, backed by the then opposition Social Democrats and Greens, rescinded the longer reactor operating lifespans approved in December 2010 and set earlier closure dates for each of the 17 power reactors. Eight closed immediately, nine are due to close by 2022.

The power companies argued that this is an unconstitutional expropriation. The Federal Constitutional Court ruled that the decision to reduce reactor lifespans was constitutional and that it did not constitute expropriation, but that it amounted to a restriction of the companies' property rights and that compensation should therefore be paid.

Eon, RWE und Vattenfall, the companies that brought the case, may prefer to use the entitlement as a bargaining chip in the ongoing acrimonious dispute over who pays for disposing of nuclear waste, the producers of it or the public. That is, credit the entitlement against whatever waste disposal cost is set.

Public money helped set up nuclear power and, one way or another, public money will also pay for the 'clean-up', if that's possible, of the nuclear waste.

On December 15, Germany's coalition government, with the support of the Greens, passed a law regulating the long-term costs of nuclear waste management. As discussed in Nuclear Monitor #833, power companies will pay €23 billion into a government-controlled fund and they will be off the hook for any future cost increases. A leading regional newspaper blasted the deal as "a nasty deal at the taxpayers' expense". 140,000 people have so far signed a petition: 'We're not paying for your waste'.

Activists are especially mad at Jürgen Trittin, a senior Green and former environment minister, who co-headed the group that wrote the law. Trittin knows that the clean-up funds fall far short of what's needed, wrote Jochen Stay, a leading activist.

Parliament will vote on scrapping a tax on nuclear fuel on 1 January 2017. The Social Democrats have said they'll campaign in next year's election to bring the tax back in, but if they have to share government with the conservatives again, that's likely to gurgle down the drain again like it did in the present coalition.

Stay's .ausgestrahlt group said in a December 15 statement: "The Bundestag will decide today that in future the general public will have to pay for the nuclear waste, and not those who for years made billions with their nuclear power stations. The power companies can buy themselves out with a once-only payment. At the same time the parliament is highly likely to throw out a motion to extend the tax on nuclear fuel."