German Taxpayers at Risk of Big Nuclear Exit Bill-Report

Source: By Reuters • Posted: Monday, March 23, 2015

BERLIN — German taxpayers could end up spending billions of euros to help close the country’s nuclear plants as current funding plans involving utilities risk falling short, a report commissioned by the government and seen by Reuters showed on Friday.

At least part of the 36 billion euros ($42 billion) in provisions set aside by Germany’s four nuclear operators should be taken under government control, the report by law firm Becker Buettner Held recommended.

“A long-term financing need cannot be guaranteed by leaving the funds with the operators,” it said, adding that paying provisions in installments or directly into a public fund would be a practical way to meet the long-term costs.

E.ON, RWE, EnBW and Vattenfall [VATN.UL], Germany’s “big four”, are scheduled to switch off their nuclear plants by an accelerated 2022 deadline set after the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011.

A spokesman for EnBW said the company would examine the report and undertake an evaluation.

An E.ON spokesman and a spokeswoman for RWE said the size of the provisions for the exit and the disposal of nuclear waste were appropriate.

The E.ON spokesman said they had totalled 16.6 billion euros in 2014 for his company, up from 15.8 billion euros in the previous year.

A spokeswoman for Vattenfall said the German system of provisions was reliable and under the control of accountants and financial administrations that were continuously seeking advice from external experts as to the size of funds needed.

Court rulings at national and European Union level had found that the system conformed with competition guidelines and requirements for efficiency, she said.

She put provisions in 2013 for the Brunsbuettel and Kruemmel reactors at a joint 3.5 billion euros, adding that 2014 provisions have not yet been published.

Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel has told lawmakers from his centre-left Social Democrat (SPD) party that he wants to look into creating a public body to oversee the multibillion-euro risks associated with the nuclear switch-off.

In a letter seen by Reuters, Gabriel said he wants the balance sheets of nuclear power plant operators to be stress-tested to ensure their provisions are adequate.

The letter also says there needs to be a framework created for nuclear liabilities if companies are restructured.

Germany’s expansion of solar and wind energy through subsidies has already hit the profits of utilities as well as the pockets of consumers.

The firms offer regular assurances that they can meet their nuclear responsibilities. But there are concerns about the funding, including what would happen in the event of a utility going bankrupt.

Utilities have not spelled out how their provisions are backed up, saying only that some are held in cash and the rest in undisclosed assets.

One of the options in the event of a bankruptcy would be to force the parent companies of nuclear power plants to assume liability, the report said.

Another option would be to ask the companies to form an internal fund made up of the various provisions, which would ensure there was enough money to at least cover the demolition of nuclear reactors.

But the authors of the 152-page report believe ring-fencing the money in an external fund would make it easier for the government to take control.

“The government report clearly argues for a public fund, like we have called for,” said Sylvia Kotting-Uhl, the nuclear spokeswoman for the Greens. “It’s now no longer about the whether but only about the how.”