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So You're Telling Me There's a Chance: Germany's Nuclear Wobble

Mark Nelson

Monday, February 28, 2022

Chris Keefer  0:00  

Welcome back to Decouple tonight, I'm joined once again by Mark Nelson, nuclear engineer and Decouple senior energy analyst to discuss breaking news as the impacts of the Russian war on Ukraine reverberate throughout European energy policy. Mark, it's good to have you back.

Mark Nelson  0:15  

It's bad to be back.

Chris Keefer  0:17  

Yeah, I'd say Long time no see, but feels like it's just three days ago, now that we were discussing the situation in Ukraine in regards to US nuclear plants. Mark, you reached out to me with a piece of breaking news sounded newsworthy, hit me with it.

Mark Nelson  0:31  

Yeah. So sources in the economic Ministry of Germany say that there's active talk of pitching idea to the public because they still don't, I can think have the strength of their own convictions of a nuclear slowdown or a slowdown of the nuclear phase out. So this is going to come along with other really unpopular things like a slowdown in the coal phase out the difference is this the coal phase out was already slow, was already slowed down? Yeah. Like, this whole winter, people keep saying, Oh, no, quit saying there's a connection between Russian gas and nuclear phase out, there's only the same amount of gas as before. She's completely ignorant. But I mean, it's true only so that far, but it's wrong. And that Germany was very much planning to build its entire energy future around, not just rushing gas, but like a doubling of supply into into Germany of Russian gas. So like, all their plans of decommissioning and future and, and getting rid of the nuclear that was based around having both Nord streams. So the people trying to say there isn't a connection or whatever, it's because they they're anti nuclear people have only started paying attention. And they're, they have to keep up the anti nuclear and that's, so they're like guessing, basically, with no real understanding of the of the German energy plant. So anyway, without that, we can just say, it's not at all guaranteed that they reverse the phase out. It's not guaranteed that they don't return to nuclear, if they do complete the phase out. In other words, they may come to nuclear while killing their own plants. That would be insane. But it's a possibility. And there is a small, a small but real possibility that they can even reverse the closure of the three reactors that they foolishly closed a few weeks ago,

Chris Keefer  2:23  

I was just reading a report. I think this is unrelated to what you're describing. But there there was a minister, I think hubback I'm not actually sure his formal title. Talking about the potential of extending lifespan,

Mark Nelson  2:35  

the economy minister and the economy ministry oversees the energy ministry, in a lot of European governments, energy has shifted from being like a technical portfolio to being sort of a sort of an arts and crafts portfolio where you have ecology studies, people and journalists and and, you know, like rivals to the throne that need to be given something to do with their time they've been put in charge of the energy programs, as we discussed with friends, there's a lot of issues that I think you could, you could say are represented by having people who just can't keep more than one energy number in a moment memorized in their head. They just don't do I'm sure they're good people at heart or whatever, but they don't get the numbers and they can't make them like lineup, those people have been put in charge of energy in European countries by virtue of putting the Energy Department's under like sort of vibes portfolios, you might say,

Chris Keefer  3:30  

right, so anyway, there was some discussion of entertaining the idea, but interestingly, I saw in this article that he was saying is wouldn't help in the 2022 2023 winter season. Because even those remaining three reactors, preparations are so far advanced for their shutdown

Mark Nelson  3:47  

look like, dude, Chris, he doesn't really know. That's what the that's what that folks at the heads of the company who are doing the decommissioning and tear downs and that is what they've told him, but their employees, you can sack their ass, you could just get rid of them, right? It doesn't that that doesn't correspond to the engineering situation, which is in an emergency. Yes, you can machine the fuels get them certified and get them in the reactor pull yank them out with a day if they aren't working quite right, slightly change your tolerances on on vibration or you don't want to hurt the reactor. But these are these are issues below the level of the war concerns that led to a turnaround in the policy. This guy's only getting up to speed think about this. What energy minister in Germany what what German high level politician in the last decade has had to know anything about nuclear nothing. They're just figuring it out as they go hour by hour, right? Like I it's not I who knows whether the heads of the German utilities even understand the plant. They were selected at the tail end of a highly predictable guaranteed nuclear phase out right there. just kind of winging it, they're not like, they're not that we'll get the truth out in a few days. I'm not saying that we're definitely absolutely gonna save the plants. And I'm not saying that the German Ministry is going to make the right decision. If, let's say, worse, comes to worse cube falls tonight. And everyone gets a taste of awful, awful uncertainty with fossil fuel supplies getting cut off from Russia. And then everybody blinks and everyone decides that all they they care about Ukraine not so much to like, starve or be cold on their behalf or whatever, and it's all reversed, then maybe we'll just kill the reactors and pretend nothing happened. That's not what we're hearing. We're hearing from folks in Germany saying, this is different. It's different this time. And when Germans say a thing, they keep doing it, and it's the turnaround that matters. Somebody compared it to a Roomba, a robot vacuum cleaner that is only gonna turn when it literally runs into something is the wall, it's gonna keep sucking, but it's gonna turn right. Alright, so that seems to be the what's going to happen. Maybe in Germany, but we don't know. That's why we're doing an improvised fax reaction video when I was just on with you 48 hours before. That's why I said it's bad to be back.

Chris Keefer  6:14  

So you're anticipating what you call the trial balloon report?

Mark Nelson  6:18  

Yeah, where they're gonna put it out. And if everybody's like, well, we don't care about internet security that much, then they can they can say, Oh, well, that's just a report. That's just some guy. We won't work with him again, or whatever they can, they can sync it, you know. But if it polling in Germany says that something like half of Germans, nearly half of Germans by the most recent polling I've seen, are okay with nuclear as part of a climate solution, which means either they didn't know it was part of a climate solution before or so. Germans are really confused, really, really confused. It's okay, energy is hard. It's just that the energy ministers have been pulled from the ranks of the confused now that there's a war and people are saying, we don't have any ideology. Everything's on the table. We'll see. It's gonna be completely crazy. By tomorrow. Look, as far as I can tell, Russian forces are about to do the first wartime capture of a nuclear plant. Is that parrhesia? I'll be probably staying up half the night like, or the whole thing watching to see what happens there. Yeah, they that could cause Germany the Roomba itself, like back in the other direction, right. But what matters here is what what the Germans I talked to tell me is that this is a wild turn in rhetoric. Germans like to have their rhetoric match their actions. That's why they when they weren't willing to cut off Russian fossil fuels. They weren't saying that they were willing to right they everyone was condemning them around the EU and the whole world for being complete and utter sniveling cowards but they they knew that they needed that Russian fossil fuels right at the point that they say they can turn around or do something. They might actually do it. We just don't know yet.

Chris Keefer  8:05  

So Mark, what's actually happening with gas flows to the EU over the last few days? I heard it it actually uptick and initial a couple days Are we still seeing plenty of

Mark Nelson  8:14  

prices went up Chris, which means that contracts that have adders or clauses that say more gas flows, if the prices go up, Russia delivered the gas. Russia has been exactly meeting all of their contracts.

Chris Keefer  8:28  

Right? When the wind was performing initially, well, the first few days. How's it holding out?

Mark Nelson  8:34  

It will it went down as happens. In The Now immortal words of Bloomberg journalist Javier blott. When somebody asked him what's wrong with the wind, he says it didn't blow this is just sometimes it doesn't blow. And in this case, it stopped blowing at a time when the sun was going down to right, which happens sometimes, in a modeling study. You're like, it's okay, on average, it's fine. Or you say, No, we'll have big batteries or something or

Chris Keefer  9:04  

the model doesn't worry there. I'm guessing. That's that's not what,

Mark Nelson  9:08  

you know, you don't who's gonna put a war in a model? That's real life models are different?

Chris Keefer  9:12  

No, no. Well, I mean, what is Germany's alternative to Nord Stream and Russian gas and coal? Does it have LNG terminals? Is it approving them?

Mark Nelson  9:23  

No, it doesn't have LNG terminals, though the gas balance and we're Europe kind of works like this. You can ship LNG to other European countries, and then they won't draw on supplies that are also available to you know, it's a little bit complicated. Gas is hard to move. It's really hard to move. It takes billions 10s of billions to set up the gas pipelines to take advantage of new big gas booms like that's a kind of a hidden part of the US story. 10s of billions of dollars put into gas pipelines to help the fracking boom actually get to market. But that only gets you so far as the US borders until recently when entrepreneurs were We're building LNG terminals, all of that was under attack by the climate hawks because they're like these are fossil fuels. LNG is higher emissions than pipeline gas even. And it encourages fossil fuel production, which is atmospheric methane emissions if you don't have a perfect seal over the entire process, which you want. So these facilities were rightfully under attack in Germany, this is important. In Germany, why would you build LNG terminals? If Russian gas was always going to undercut it? You would only do that if you wanted to waste money or not be completely dependent on Russia.

Chris Keefer  10:36  

Can Germany Belgium the EU pivot to LNG natural gas away from Russian gas? Is that realistic? What are the consequences? It's gonna

Mark Nelson  10:44  

be a meaner, colder, harder life because it's really expensive, Chris? Yeah, it's it's not expensive. The LNG producers are getting hosed. Like they're like the price of gas in Europe over this crisis leading up to the war was something ranged between four and something like 15 times as expensive as the gas price and the major mark in the US the Henry Hub price. So that price is huge, which means maximum flow to the LNG terminals to export that caused political problems in the US where Anti-nuclear Anti fossil fuel senators like Elizabeth Warren wrote a letter to the Biden administration begging them to like stop sending gas to Europe only days before war broke out. And Russia attacked Ukraine, these people are just winging it, they are making it up minute by minute as realities of energy puncture ideology, they don't actually have the full picture in their head at any point, there's like a shockwave where they're, they're, they're getting hit by the shockwave and changing a bit. Same thing with the German energy ministers, they don't like, have some picture of what this situation looks like. They don't have the numbers memorized. They have AIDS for that. But the aids are hired to deliver on the etiology. See the issue. And then you can have whatever models you want, any model you want, that wants to say anything, anyone can get that and they can have it be really good and really complicated, really proprietary, or really public and garbage or whatever you can. You can get whatever model you want to fit the policy, policy vision you want to deliver until you get punched in the face.

Chris Keefer  12:27  

So we had a very thorough episode, we call it the natural gas masterclass with you where he went into a lot of details on this, but I just wanted to rehash a few of those details, because I think it's really relevant to this discussion of, you know, a potential pivot away from pipeline, gas towards LNG, and also the implications of, you know, keeping those last three nuclear plants bringing a few back so can you give us a sense now of you know, how much gas is on an LNG tanker how that compares to pipeline delivery and how that compares to a gigawatt scale nuclear reactor, what that offsets just to give us a sense of those volumes. Again,

Mark Nelson  13:04  

disclaimer, there's a bunch of ranges here. I like to simplify things down into easy rules of thumb, it's the way engineers think you'd get a really easy rule of thumb, you just know it works. It's conservative, and you go it and you and you're done. Right. So although LNG tankers range from 125,000, for pretty small 125,000 cubic meters of LNG, which is not the same thing as the RE gasified volume of that, right, so, the RE gasified equivalent of a say 170 5000 175,000 cubic meters of liquid natural gas, D gasifiers into just over point 1 billion cubic meter BCM is a good number because it's like country sized amounts of gas. Nord Stream one Nord Stream to each of them 55 BC and that's billion cubic meters of flow if going at full capacity over a year. Right. So 55 BCM is the Nord Stream one that's on now, right point, one BCM is a reasonable sized LNG tanker. If with this global rush for LNG that's about to happen. We're going to get really big tankers, they're going to carry up to 202 50 to 75. I'm not sure what the very biggest one is, but I bet we see 300,000 cubic meters of liquid natural gas would exist in which case, it would be something like point one, sure, five, about point one, five 2.18 BCM. Now converting that into energy content, so we can convert it to the electricity equivalent from a nuclear plant. It goes like this. Point, one BCM Building cubic meter is approximately one terawatt hour of gas, heat energy. So if you deliver that straight to a house and burn it point one terawatt hours of sensible heat for the inhabitants of this lucky home right now, to convert to electricity, we have to we have to mess with that a little bit, if you are converting it to electricity, and have an efficient combined cycle gas plant. And if then you are using electric resistance heating. That is you you turn on just like a like an old incandescent light bulb, but it's a heater, right, so it's just a heater with hot coils giving, taking very high order expensive and precise electricity and turning it into just heat, then you lose about 40% of your heat energy to turn it into that electrical energy to turn it back into heat energy. In it, if you're burning the natural gas, the RE gasified gas in a modern combined cycle, natural gas plant run in baseload mode, that's kind of important if you're, you're varying the usage up and down, how fast and how frequently you're varying, your efficiency is going to take a pretty big heat hit sorry, it's tough, he hit that works, right? Anyway. So if you are using more sophisticated ways of turning electricity into heat in your home like a heat pump, then your your conversion rate will get better a really good heat pump, depending on the outside temperature, how you've installed it, how you're operating, it can do one to three, one to four ratio of electricity in to heat sucked out of the ground in the air and put into the happy home. Right? So that really that undoes even goes beyond what the losses were of converting to the gas plant. It even makes up for the heat losses in a nuclear plant as you convert nuclear heat to steam and steam to electricity, backing up and comparing LNG tankers to nuclear in a home using a decent but not incredible heat pump, which Takens takes into account, let's say turning on your heat pump and a really cold time where your heat pump might not be as efficient in delivering heat. You have one tanker we're calling it 175 kg BCM. That one tanker is going to give you about one terawatt hour of heat. From natural or one sorry, one terawatt hour of heat from natural gas gives you about point six terawatt hours from electricity and combined cycle natural gas plants. If you're getting that from a nuclear plant, the point six terawatt hours, then we get conversions that look like this.

Germany's about to turn off nuclear plants worth about 30 terawatt hours depending on the size of your boat and how you're heating in a home with heat pumps or whatever. Then you're you're losing between the say, to give you a big range between 20 and 40. LNG tankers,

Chris Keefer  18:20  

based upon your your earlier analysis at sound like North Stream one is the equivalent about 555 mid sized LNG tankers arriving per year. So we're talking Yep. So talking a lot of LNG ships, let's not get too caught up in that because we have I've got to actually run to the emergency department not very much time. But I did want to cover a few other issues. The three German reactors that were shut off New Year's Eve 2021. Is there a potential for those to be brought back online if sanity returns to German energy policy?

Mark Nelson  18:49  

It's hard, but this is the thing that I think people aren't realizing is like when the economics Minister says it's really hard, it would be hard to get it. Well guess what? Only hard choices are left. In truth, only hard choices were ever left. Welcome to energy. Welcome to engineering, it's hard out there. Only hard choices were left. Yes. So it would be really hard to bring them back. But only hard options are available. So let's look at this option. As described to me by folks who have some closeness to the decommissioning. The key moment in many parts of the world of decommissioning is a flush, an acid wash flush, where they flush out the reactor vessel, the main pipes associated with it, the steam generator, if it's a pressurized water reactor, they flush that out with acid. The acid can be different strengths and you can flush it for different periods of time. Evidently, the French acid wash is really intense and definitely is going to destroy that thing. Yeah, sometimes God German washed it. I've been told I cannot verify this myself. I've been told by folks in Germany that the German acid wash is not so severe that that is the death blow for certain in Germany. It does appear that Germans go faster than French and decommissioning nuclear shocker, right? Everything that Germans do good and bad, they seem to do with incredible efficiency. So the key thing is how strong is that acid wash, whether they've done it and whether they've started damaging through intention, or accident, other key really difficult to replace and restore parts of the nuclear plant. If it's a matter of life and death, we will find ways to restore working equipment if you're talking about a technological society like Germany, if they've switched their ideology, they should be able to get the technique done, they should be able to get the the engineering work done so fast and Heim still has not had its acid flush, at least in unit two in the second unit to be turned off. Now, I source that I've heard from who knows a person involved in that has said that the acid wash and fasten I will definitely mess it up and is due to happen within the next month. Fasten. Haim is a French nuclear reactor with 1/3 ownership stake by Germany on the border with Germany. And it had been upgraded for long life. And then because the French government had made a law that said you have to destroy 40% of your nuclear fleet or something by this year, they just were destroying it. Because as the ministers we talked about on the other podcasts that they said, Well, you know, you have to shut off reactors to have less nuclear. I was like, Oh, true. And then they're like, well, so this is the one we're shutting, okay, they've just taken up to what two years to actually do that fatal blow. They've killed they've like removed the turbine. So fortunately, turbines are easy to replace, they'll need to do that. And since the French just bought the turbine, the nuclear turbine Department of General Electric guts, General Electric is being sold for scraps at the moment. So that's they've got they should be able to get the turbines they need if they were actually worried about energy security. But as you see, this is all tentative and people saying we can't do it because it's hard. That is a pre war statement. What you're needing to get is the post war. appraisal, if you tell them nuclear needs to be safe, but we need this thing back on. How what is the path? What is the path look like? And then you check, do you just need to restore the entire primary circuit? rebuild it from scratch? Do you just do you need to just replace a turbine? Do you need to replace reactor internals? I mentioned that final thing reactor internals because when I was helping with the demonstration protesting the closure of New York City's most important power plant, you know, we just ripped out New York City's most important power plant to leave New York, vulnerable to gas supply shortages that because New York has not expanded gas capacity, they only really have the ability to get it from LNG tankers, like, for example, from Russia, coming into Massachusetts, for America's biggest city, one of the most key cities in the world. Right. So those reactors, I can they come back, at least the first reactor of the two to be shut down in I believe it was April of 2020. And then the second was shut down April of 2021. Right, so

the first reactor that had been shut down, I learned on the day of the protest from a gentleman who was one of the one in 10 employees to be retained to help tear apart his own power plant. He told me that they damage the internals of one of the pressure vessels in trying to take stuff out, something got caught, and they just ripped it and, you know, supervisor said it doesn't matter. They're not coming back on. Right. So that's the sort of thing that'd be increasingly tricky and expensive to repair. If it were a matter of national security, of course, we'd find a way until the primary circuits destroyed, in which case, we're stuck trying to rebuild our entire competency in nuclear in the US anyway, you're back to the drawing board.

Chris Keefer  24:14  

Right. Okay. Final question mark. And this is again, following up on some of our earlier episodes, looking at geopolitics, the geopolitics of the German Russian relationship. We've seen unprecedented EU and NATO unity here. I think you and I are both expecting that Russia had Germany on maybe a tighter leash with Nord Stream two and they would not have this kind of option. Are you surprised? Did we get it wrong here?

Mark Nelson  24:40  

Well, we said that when we weren't actually expecting a Russian invasion, right? I mean, we said that when we weren't expecting a natural gas crisis, yeah. What I honestly I learned I learned not to make certain kinds of predictions certainly, but I thought we were going to get a slow squeeze to death that Ukraine like a patient thing. A lot of the people commenting Well, I didn't realize Putin would do this. A lot of people are saying he seemed really impatient. I just thought he'd be more patient right? I thought there'd be a slow squeeze of Ukraine you just keep you keep up the low level conflict and conflict in the Donbass. And then you you just kind of squeeze Ukraine's economy until people get upset by this winter's high natural gas prices and energy prices. And maybe they you just wait there and wait until they they're ready to make changes. I don't know. I don't I think that's what we had in our head. You took you saw that it took multiple days of knowing it was a 100% full scale attack to conquer the entire country before Germany cracked and and they waited until their wind and solar finally relented and went to nearly zero. Right. It went down. You know, they've spent what something like 300 billion euros on their wind and solar and I went to about 6% of power on on the evening of Saturday, the 26 So like, they still wait in that time, and we still don't know and the gas is still flowing at full speed unabated. So we weren't quite wrong I think we identified the correct mechanisms we just got taken aback like almost everybody in the world that an actual all out war was launched on Ukraine.

Chris Keefer  26:25  

Alright mark, we're gonna have to leave it there. I've got to get to the emergency department. pleasure talking to you again anyway,

Mark Nelson  26:30  

I we had the numbers right is about 30 tankers to replace approximately to replace the depending on how big the tankers they need to be big

Chris Keefer  26:38  

about math as you as you continue the conversation. I love it, Mark. Always a pleasure. We will talk again soon and folks follow mark on Twitter at energy bats. Bye for now.

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