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Nuclear Power Plants Could Stay Open, Says Germany

BERLIN—German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said for the first time that his government could postpone the planned closure of its remaining nuclear reactors, as he criticized a decision by Russia to constrain gas flows to Germany—a move that could deal a severe blow to Europe’s largest economy.

Last month, Russia shut down for maintenance its giant Nord Stream pipeline, which connects Russia and Germany under the Baltic Sea and is operated by Russian state-owned energy producer Gazprom PJSC.

After the maintenance ended, Gazprom restored the flow, but only to 40% of the pipeline’s capacity. It has since cut that to 20%, saying it couldn’t maintain normal flow without a turbine that had been undergoing maintenance in Canada. On Wednesday, Mr. Scholz rejected that explanation, saying Russia refused to take delivery of the turbine.

The looming gas shortage has forced the government to trigger emergency measures, raising the specter of gas rationing over the winter that could force factories to shut down and push Europe’s powerhouse economy into a recession.

On Tuesday, the chancellor broke with a longstanding policy and said for the first time that it “could make sense” to keep Germany’s last three nuclear reactors online. They are due to be shut down in December as part of the country’s transition to renewable energy.

Germany decided to phase out nuclear power over two decades ago, a plan that was greatly accelerated by former Chancellor Angela Merkel following the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in 2011.

Western leaders are preparing for the possibility that Russian natural gas flows through the key Nord Stream pipeline may never return to full levels. WSJ’s Shelby Holliday explains what an energy crisis could look like in Europe, and how it might ripple through the world. Illustration: David Fang

The three remaining reactors generate 6% of Germany’s electricity. Plans to replace them with gas were upset by the economic war with Russia, Germany’s main energy supplier.

The news comes as the global energy crisis, soaring prices for fossil fuels and climate concerns stir new interest in nuclear power. Some argue that nuclear power will be needed as a bridge as the world transitions to renewable energy. The U.K., Poland and the Netherlands all plan to build new nuclear reactors.

In Germany, longstanding opposition to nuclear power generation is starting to shift. The original decision to phase out nuclear power was made 20 years ago by a coalition of Mr. Scholz’s Social Democrats and the Greens.

The energy crisis triggered by the Ukraine conflict has promoted a shift among German parties as well as the population.

Around 70% of Germans are now in favor of extending the life of nuclear reactors, according to an Insa poll from last week. A proposal to put off the shutdown has been gaining traction within Mr. Scholz’s government, which is composed of the Social Democrats, the Greens and the business-friendly Free Democrats.

The Greens, a party with roots in the antinuclear movement, are the key obstacle to the proposal, according to several officials.

Germany has come under pressure from its European Union allies to prolong the life of its nuclear plants to provide more electricity for the European grid.

Germany’s environment and economy ministries in March recommended against extending the plants’ lifetime, due to legal and safety issues and a lack of fuel rods to keep the plants running. They said that an extension wouldn’t help the country’s electricity output in the coming winter and the necessary investment would only be justified if the plants were extended for at least three to five years.

Mr. Scholz’s government has commissioned a stress test for the nuclear plants to determine whether their operations can be extended safely and whether it would help Germany’s energy supply. The final decision on whether to extend their life would be made once the study is completed, which could be in the coming days, the chancellor said Wednesday.

Germany has already been forced to reopen mothballed coal plants, which are highly polluting and go against climate policy goals, to avoid blackouts if Russia turns off the gas supply.

On Wednesday, Mr. Scholz held a press conference in front of the gas turbine, which is now at manufacturer Siemens Energy’s German plant. He said the turbine is ready to be taken to Russia but Gazprom was refusing to accept it.

“Nothing, absolutely nothing stands in the way of transporting this turbine to Russia,” Mr. Scholz said. “The reduction of the gas flow through the Nord Stream pipeline has nothing to do with this turbine.”

The Kremlin didn’t respond immediately to a request for comment on Mr. Scholz’s remarks regarding the turbine.

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Russia has said it can’t maintain normal flow through the Nord Stream pipeline without a turbine, pictured.

Photo: sascha schuermann/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Mr. Scholz said there were no technical or legal reasons for reducing the gas supply or for refusing to take delivery of the turbine. Germany believes Russia isn’t honoring its gas contracts for political reasons, he said.

The chancellor said the turbine, which was flown into Germany from Canada last month after the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau exempted it from sanctions, could be transported to Russia at any time. Mr. Scholz said Wednesday that he sought to “demystify the debate” and show that Russia is reneging on its contractual obligations.

All Gazprom needs to say, Mr. Scholz said, is “We want the turbine, please send it to us.”

Mr. Scholz said Germany’s decadeslong policy of relying on Russia for energy was a mistake. German consumers and businesses now must conserve gas to get through the winter while the government works on obtaining alternative supplies.

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The Klingenberg natural gas-powered thermal power station in Berlin, Germany.

Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The Portovaya compressor station where the turbine should be delivered has six turbines of the same type and two smaller ones, according to Siemens Energy. The station, located near Russia’s border with Finland, needs five turbines to operate Nord Stream at full capacity, of which currently only one is working, the company said.

Siemens Energy said on Wednesday that the station should now have enough turbines to operate and the one stuck in Germany wasn’t due to be installed until September.

“From a technical standpoint, we can’t comprehend why the pipeline supply depends on this one turbine,” Christian Bruch, chief executive of Siemens Energy, said Wednesday.

Russia needed to be certain the turbine wasn’t sanctioned and wouldn’t be turned off remotely under the pretext of sanctions, said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday, according to Russian news agency Interfax. Gazprom said Wednesday that European Union, Canadian and U.K. sanctions make the delivery of the turbine to the compressor station impossible.

Mr. Scholz said Wednesday that all permits—from Germany, the EU, the U.K. and Canada—were ready. “There are no reasons why this delivery can’t take place,” Mr. Scholz said.

Last week, Gazprom also said there were technical issues with the other turbines at the compressor station, including damage to cables, failure of temperature sensors and damage to compressor blades.

Siemens said it wasn’t aware of any technical issues with other turbines.

Corrections & Amplifications
The German chancellor is Olaf Scholz. An earlier version of this article misspelled his last name as Sholz in two references. (Corrected on Aug. 3)

Write to Bojan Pancevski at bojan.pancevski@wsj.com and Georgi Kantchev at georgi.kantchev@wsj.com

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