The German’s Greens scandal on the nuclear phase-out

by Björn Peters

NOTE: Below is a machine translation of an article by the monthly magazine Cicero that discovered how two German ministries betrayed the national Parliament (Bundestag) before its decision on the question whether or not to keep nuclear power.

The economic impact of the decision to switch nuclear power plants off in the midst of an energy crisis caused by detrimental policies and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine cannot be underestimated.

The chronology:

  • Feb 20, 2022: Russia invades the Ukraine
  • Feb 27, 2022: The minister of the Economy, Robert Habeck, informs the public that the question whether to proceed with the planned nuclear phase-out in light of the invasion would not be decided by ideology.
  • Mar 7, 2022: The ministries for the Economy and the Environment publish statements to assess the legal, economical, operational and technical feasibility for a life-time extension.
  • Mar 9, 2022: In a mailing list read by a few thousand researchers, NGO employees and politicians (Strommarkttreffen), I published an assessment of the claims made by the ministries. In my view, the ministries showed a severe lack of knowledge of essential facts and insights into nuclear markets, operations, technology and even regulation.
  • March 2022: Several journalists approach me for more details on my assessment. Other experts publish insights into the topics misrepresented in the original statements by the ministries (here one from Aug. 2022). Over the summer 2022, several media publish criticism on the decision not to keep nuclear energy. The discussion is continued in national and regional parliaments.
  • Daniel Gräber from Cicero wants to know more, he asks the two ministries for more detailed on their decision-making process in Feb and Mar 2022 under the freedom of information act. The ministry for the environment responds but the one for the economy refuses to pass on such information. Daniel goes to court.
  • Feb 2024: The court rules that the ministry for the economy hat to hand out all files. At the end of March, they reach Daniel.
  • Apr 25, 2024: Cicero publishes the story below as a title story in their April issue.

Special thanks to for their amazing translation engine! Cicero published all relevant documents in PDF form within the article. I did not include the links here, as they are anyhow in German, nor did I translate the original documents.

How the Greens deceived us on the nuclear phase-out

by Daniel Gräber

The nuclear power files of the Ministry of Economic Affairs released by Cicero show how Green Party string-pullers manipulated the decision to extend the operating life of German nuclear power plants in 2022. Robert Habeck was also misinformed.

Jürgen Trittin celebrated 15 April 2023 in front of the Brandenburg Gate. It was the triumph of his life. He posed for the cameras in front of a yellow dinosaur lying on Pariser Platz with its legs stretched upwards. Kneeling on its belly was a little red man with the radiant „Nuclear power? No thanks“ sun on its face. In one hand a sword, in the other the familiar emblem as a shield. Trittin, the dragon slayer, smiled contentedly and somewhat wearily. It was the day on which the last German nuclear power plants were shut down. The political battle against the „nuclear state“, which had lasted more than half a century, finally seemed to have been won.

The bitter vagaries of history almost got in the way of the Green Party, who as Environment Minister under Chancellor Schröder sealed the end of nuclear energy in the early 2000s and watched over it until the end as a member of the Bundestag. Even before Russia’s attack on Ukraine, many industrialised countries were coming to the realisation that weather-dependent energy sources such as wind and solar power alone would not be enough to say goodbye to coal, gas and oil. Nuclear power is currently experiencing a global renaissance in the wake of the climate protection debate. When Germany’s „energy transition“, which had led straight to dependence on Russian natural gas, became an acute supply and security problem for the whole of Europe with Putin’s war, a timid debate began even in Germany about whether the nuclear phase-out should be postponed or abandoned.

Still a mystery for many citizens

But nothing came of it. While European neighbours and partners have halted their phase-out plans and want to build new nuclear power plants, Germany has shut down its last ones, which are among the safest and most reliable in the world, in the middle of an energy crisis. How this could have happened is still a mystery to many citizens.

To find out more, Cicero applied for access to files under the Environmental Information Act and won a lawsuit against the Ministry of Economic Affairs, led by Robert Habeck. During the hearing in January 2024, Habeck’s officials argued surprisingly honestly: Germany’s special approach to nuclear energy „must be defended in the future both socially and vis-à-vis international and European partners“, they are quoted as saying in the minutes. „The Federal Government’s negotiating partners could – if the documents were disclosed – counter the arguments developed by the Federal Government.“ The judge was not convinced. His judgement: Habeck’s secrecy was unlawful, the documents must be released.

Weakly substantiated and hardly documented

The two well-filled folders that we received at the end of March – in addition to the previously released documents – consist of internal emails, notes, minutes of meetings and letters. Some things, such as the botched invention of a nuclear power plant „deployment reserve“, are documented in detail. Other decisions appear weakly substantiated and barely documented. Either the files are incomplete or important agreements were only made verbally.

What the documents clearly show: The expertise of the experts paid for with taxpayers‘ money in their own ministry hardly played a role. In most cases, they were not even consulted. The leadership circle of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Ministry of the Environment, which is responsible for nuclear safety and is staffed by Green Party soldiers, agreed on all important steps among themselves. When the specialised departments of both ministries were allowed to give their assessment, it was usually ignored – or deliberately distorted. Those who were always listened to instead were the Green Party and the parliamentary group in the Bundestag. Their aim from the outset was to prevent an exit from the phase-out. No matter what the cost.

The central figures in the months-long tug-of-war

On the day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, 24 February 2022, Economics Minister Robert Habeck and his then State Secretary Patrick Graichen met with the head of the energy company RWE, Markus Krebber, for confidential talks. It was about gas. And about nuclear energy. Because RWE owns two of the last six German nuclear power plants. One of them, Gundremmingen C in Bavaria, was only shut down at the turn of the year. The other, Emsland NPP in Lower Saxony, was still running at the time.

There are no minutes of this conversation in the files, only an email that Krebber sent to Habeck and Graichen two days later. „As requested, I am enclosing a paper describing the complex aspects that would have to be taken into account in any deliberations on the continued operation of nuclear power plants,“ wrote the RWE CEO, emphasising that „only politicians can decide how to assess the issue“. The paper attached by Krebber reads neutrally. It could have been written by a ministry official. There is no sign that it originates from RWE.

Patrick Graichen was probably satisfied with it. Because on 28 February, he forwarded it to Stefan Tidow, his state secretary colleague in the Ministry of the Environment, and wrote:

„Dear Stefan,
Enclosed, as discussed, are the comments from the operators on the subject of extending the operating life. There is no conclusion underneath, but basically it is clear: they don’t want it. At the end of the day, the nuclear supervisory authority would also need to do something like this. And then the question is who will put it on which official letterhead.
Best regards

Graichen and Tidow know each other from their time together at the Ministry of the Environment. Graichen worked there from 2001 to 2012 before heading the lobby organisation „Agora Energiewende“. Stefan Tidow has already held a number of positions in the parliamentary and government operations of the Greens. He was once an advisor in the Ministry of the Environment and in 2016, under Graichen, he was head of „Industrial Policy Project Manager“ at Agora. In 2021, when the traffic light coalition came to power, both reached the pinnacle of their careers and became civil servant state secretaries. Graichen, who has since been dismissed, was responsible for energy policy in Habeck’s Ministry of Economic Affairs. Tidow is responsible for nuclear supervision in the Ministry of the Environment, which is headed by party colleague Steffi Lemke.

The two Green state secretaries were the central figures in the months of wrangling over the extension of the nuclear power plant lifespan. They constantly exchanged ideas and – according to the emails – consulted with each other more than with their ministers. And they agreed from the outset: there must be no backing away from the nuclear phase-out. Technical arguments in favour should not even be made known. Not even to their own ministers.

Habeck spread the untruth

On 27 February, Robert Habeck spoke publicly for the first time about the nuclear power issue that had suddenly arisen. During an interview on the ARD programme „Bericht aus Berlin“, he was asked whether he could imagine leaving the nuclear power plants on the grid for longer. „It is also part of my ministry’s task to answer this question,“ he replied, quickly adding that an extension of the operating life for the coming winter would not help, as the „nuclear power plants could only continue to operate under the highest safety concerns and possibly with fuel supplies that have not yet been secured“. Habeck was thus spreading an untruth, either deliberately or because he didn’t know any better. This was followed by a sentence that made people sit up and take notice: The question was „a relevant one, I would not dismiss it ideologically“.

This was remarkable because those familiar with the Greens believed that the minister and media favourite, who had just taken office at the time, would be able to rid his party of its anti-nuclear legacy. Just as the Finnish Greens have succeeded in doing, who are in favour of this cutting-edge technology for climate protection reasons – not as a contrast to renewables, but as a technically and economically sensible addition.

Who has even read it?

But Habeck had promised too much. He was unwilling or unable to stand up to the ideologues. He preferred to reactivate decommissioned coal-fired power plants and think about floating oil-fired power plants instead of daring to engage in a power struggle with veterans like Trittin, who see the fight against nuclear power as their political life’s work. These Greens – as the nuclear power plant files from Habeck’s ministry make clear – have formed a dense, felt-like network over decades that dominates German energy policy. And now, as the failure of this policy becomes apparent and threatens the country’s economic future, they are sitting at the levers of power.

The day after Habeck’s television interview, Robert Heinrich, the head of the management and coordination staff at the Ministry of Economic Affairs, wrote an email to Volker Oschmann. Oschmann, a lawyer, began his career as a civil servant in the Environment Ministry under Jürgen Trittin, where he worked on the Renewable Energy Sources Act. After the Social Democrat Sigmar Gabriel transferred responsibility for the energy transition to the Ministry of Economic Affairs in 2013, the Green Oschmann moved with him. Habeck made him head of the electricity department at the beginning of 2022 and dismissed its previous head. Oschmann now received the following assignment:

„Dear Volker,
We need an in-house memo that sets out the result of the examination of the question ‚Can a nuclear power plant lifetime extension help to increase energy security in the current situation‘ and that we can work with both internally and publicly. The Minister publicly announced yesterday that it will be examined.
Can you get this off the ground quickly? (If it doesn’t already exist). Thank you very much
Best regards!
Robert Heinrich, LA“

What happened next cannot be clearly traced in the files. There is a note from the Department for Security of Supply and Wholesale Electricity Trading, which belonged to Oschmann’s department. Curiously, however, unlike most of the other documents, there is no record of what happened to this note. Who forwarded it to whom and with what comments? Who read it at all?

These questions are politically explosive. In the four pages, the experts from the Ministry of Economic Affairs clearly and expertly explained why a nuclear power plant lifetime extension can help to save gas in the coming winter and avoid critical situations in the electricity grid. They presented precisely the arguments that, after months of back and forth and a heated coalition dispute, led to the coalition of traffic lights finally deciding on a mini lifetime extension for three and a half months. Now it turns out that these arguments were on the table right from the start. Well prepared by civil servant experts whose job it is to keep an eye on the good of the country as a whole, not that of one party. They wrote on 3 March 2022:

„Winter high-pressure situations in January and February are particularly relevant for security of supply. This is when the highest residual loads regularly occur due to low temperatures and low wind power generation.“

To explain: Residual load is the proportion of electricity demand that is not covered by wind and solar power.

„It is currently unclear whether sufficient natural gas can be stored for the next winter to enable gas-fired power plants to operate for days on end in addition to consumption in industry and for heat supply. (…) Extending the operating life of nuclear power plants until 31 March can help to defuse this situation. (…) In addition, it is extremely risky to support electricity generation from natural gas next winter solely through additional electricity generation from reserves and coal-fired power plants that have already been decommissioned.“

The ministry officials have also clearly identified the positive effects of an extension of the operating life on electricity prices. On the one hand, without nuclear power plants, the costs of grid stabilisation would „rise sharply“. Secondly:

„Since nuclear energy with very low variable costs ranks at the lower end of the merit order, its use pushes more expensive marginal power plants out of the merit order. As the residual load is particularly high in the months of January and February, it is to be expected that nuclear energy will often displace gas-fired power plants. This could cause electricity prices to fall in many hours.“

The merit order principle of the electricity exchange states that the most expensive power plant still required sets the price. And as the German nuclear power plants not only produce electricity reliably but also cheaply, they effectively push the most expensive power plants out of the market. Prominent economists also repeatedly drew attention to this connection, while the Minister for Economic Affairs and other leading Greens claimed until the summer that we didn’t have an electricity problem, but a gas problem.

That may have been true at the time. But Habeck could have read in the memo from his specialised department that the gas problem was threatening to become an electricity problem by winter at the latest – and that extending the lifespan would help. Could he have? If what his press office is now claiming to Cicero is true, the minister did not get to see this important memo: the document, which had previously been kept secret and which we have now released, „was only available to State Secretary Patrick Graichen at management level“. Had he let it disappear in a drawer?

In May 2023, Habeck dismissed his self-confident and power-conscious State Secretary for Energy. The official reason was his best man affair. The public and internal coalition pressure had become too great. But shouldn’t Habeck have realised earlier that Graichen was damaging him politically? Why did he let him get away with it for so long? One explanation is: because the network of die-hard energy transition advocates within the Greens is very influential. Jürgen Trittin is also still pulling a few strings in the background. And Habeck needs these people because he still dreams of becoming chancellor.

Note rewritten

Experts have been thwarted not only in the Ministry of Economics, but also in the Ministry of the Environment. The country’s most senior nuclear regulators work in Department S „Nuclear Safety, Radiation Protection“. In February 2022, the new minister Steffi Lemke appointed a staunch opponent of nuclear power as the head of this department. Gerrit Niehaus, a specialist lawyer, had previously worked in the Ministry of the Environment. When the Greens came to power in Baden-Württemberg in 2011, the state environment minister at the time appointed him to the nuclear supervisory authority in Stuttgart. A good ten years later, Lemke poached him again and lured him back to Berlin.

From the Greens‘ point of view, this personnel decision paid off. Because as soon as he took office, Niehaus showed what he had been brought in for: As head of department, he rewrote a memo from the experts under him in such a way that it fitted in with the politically predetermined goal. Anyone who places the two versions side by side will be amazed.

The first memo was signed by two consultants and a head of department and was dated 1 March 2022. Under the heading „Extending the operating life of German nuclear power plants – scenarios compatible with nuclear safety“, it set out what would have been possible from a technical perspective. The authors describe the continued operation of the nuclear power plants still in operation at the time „for several years“ as „compatible with maintaining nuclear safety“ and set out the steps that would be necessary to achieve this. They consulted with the Gesellschaft für Anlagen- und Reaktorsicherheit (GRS), in which the federal government is also involved and which has the best expertise in these matters.

Gerrit Niehaus received this note and must have been very unhappy. Because he completely rewrote it. Firstly, he replaced the word „nuclear power“ with „atomic power“ everywhere. Then he set about turning the core message of the memo into its opposite.

In the new version of 3 March – which is no longer labelled by name, but only with „Department S“ – the statement that a genuine lifetime extension with new fuel rods for several years would be possible in terms of safety was missing. Instead, it was written at the top and in bold print:

„Department S (Nuclear Safety, Radiation Protection) comes to the conclusion that the extension of the operating life of the three nuclear power plants still in operation beyond 31 December 2022, as stipulated by law and based on planning, is not justifiable in terms of safety.“

And at the very end, also in bold:

„A lifetime extension must be rejected for reasons of nuclear safety.“

Only the first version of the memo states that the GRS experts were involved. This reference is missing in the second. Managing Director Uwe Stoll told Cicero: „There was no involvement of GRS between the first and second memo.“ He did not want to say any more.

The assertion written in by department head Niehaus that not even a short-term extension of a few months was justifiable from a safety point of view was obviously false. This is shown by the further course of events. After all, the Greens were finally able to agree to such an extension without new fuel rods – for fear that a harsh winter could lead to widespread power outages and sweep them out of government. Suddenly there was no longer any talk of safety problems.

Although politically fully in line

And once again, Robert Habeck was the one on the short end of the stick. Although he had to fight out the nuclear power plant debate within his party and in public, he probably never received the first, unadulterated version of the memo. This is because Steffi Lemke’s State Secretary Stefan Tidow only sent the new memo, rewritten by Gerrit Niehaus, to the Ministry of Economic Affairs on 3 March. He wrote to Patrick Graichen: „No formal delivery yet and only for you“.

Graichen then set to work himself and drafted a five-page memo on the „Examination of the continued operation of nuclear power plants due to the war in Ukraine“. He came to the desired conclusion: after „weighing up the benefits and risks“, an extension of the operating life was not to be recommended. He sent the first draft to Tidow on 4 March at 9.32 pm. The text was so full of false assertions and ignorance that even the head of the nuclear supervisory authority Gerrit Niehaus, although politically fully in line, must have thrown up his hands in disbelief. He wrote to his boss Tidow at 10.57 pm:

„Dear Stefan,
Unfortunately, the introduction is grossly wrong in legal terms, especially in the introduction. I have tried to prevent the worst. In addition, as the responsible supervisory official, I cannot support the statement that necessary retrofits were not carried out with regard to the end of the operating life. My changes attempt to mitigate this.
Best regards

Before State Secretary Tidow could adopt these important corrections and forward them to Patrick Graichen, the latter had already sent his flawed draft to the minister. „Stefan Tidow will make a few more additions, but basically this can then also form the basis for communication between the two houses next week,“ he wrote to Robert Habeck on Friday evening. And he had nothing better to do at the weekend than to rewrite the note, written in bureaucratic German, into a lengthy question-and-answer text. Habeck sent his five closely written pages to Graichen, Tidow and a few other important colleagues on Saturday afternoon:

„Dear Patrick, dear Stefan,
I have made an FAQ based on your marvellous paper, because I believe it has to be NARRATED. If you want to read about it – so does everyone else. I would suggest emailing it to the operators tomorrow at 12.00 noon.
Lg R“

This was followed by a lively exchange of emails in which Habeck’s people considered what they should do with the story written by their boss, which was based on false facts. In the end, it was radically shortened, heavily rewritten and published on the ministry’s website on 8 March 2022 together with the „verification note“, which had been revised several times by Graichen and Tidow. It was thought within the leadership circle that this would answer the nuclear power issue once and for all. „Then we’ll pull the plug on the debate on Tuesday and can concentrate on other things afterwards,“ wrote a Habeck employee to the group on Sunday evening, two days before 8 March.

A defeat, but a victory nonetheless

That was a mistake. The debate only really got going after that. Bavaria in particular, which would have been particularly affected by the threat of gas shortages, put the pressure on.

After Robert Habeck declared the emergency plan gas alert level in mid-June 2022 and still claimed that extending the operating life of nuclear power plants was neither possible nor sensible, Bavarian Energy Minister Hubert Aiwanger asked Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz for help:

„The recent statements by your responsible Federal Minister Dr Robert Habeck, MdB, at the special energy ministers‘ meeting (…) make me fear that the Federal Government’s failure to act in this regard to date is based on misinformation from the so-called review note of 7 March 2022 from BMWK and BMUV. (…)
I appeal to you to make use of your authority to issue directives and instruct the BMWK and BMUV to immediately initiate everything necessary to enable the temporary continued operation of the Bavarian nuclear power plants Isar 2 and Gundremmingen C.“

It took another three and a half months, but then Chancellor Scholz returned to Aiwanger’s idea and formally instructed his two Green ministers Habeck and Lemke on 17 October 2022 to keep three nuclear power plants running over the winter. The four major electricity grid operators in Germany had previously spoken out in favour of this following a „stress test“ and warned of a supply shortfall in cold weather. Just as Habeck’s specialised officials had already written in the spring.

For the Greens, the defeat was nevertheless a victory. After all, they had achieved their actual goal of preventing a genuine lifetime extension of several years and the reactivation of nuclear power plants that had already been decommissioned. However, they have not yet really pulled the plug on the debate. According to experts, five of the last six German nuclear power plants could still be brought back online at a reasonable cost. The CDU and CSU have already announced this in the event of a change of government in the near future.