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A Rebirth for German Nuclear Energy?

The prospect of victory by Germany's conservative opposition in an early general election has shaken up the country's energy sector. The nuclear power industry is hoping to slow the planned phase out atomic energy.

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A majority of Germans are against nuclear power

Only a few weeks ago Germany closed down the country's oldest nuclear power plant after nearly 37 years in operation. The atomic reactor in Obrigheim, Baden-Württemberg was the second plant closed down in agreement with the government.

After Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's center-left coalition of Social Democrats (SPD) and environmentalist Greens hammered out an agreement in 2001 with the energy industry to slowly phase out Germany's nuclear power plants, most Germans thought the subject was dead and buried.

But Schröder's decision to call for an early general election this fall after his party was trounced in a regional poll on Sunday has changed the political landscape. Suddenly, the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) are considered favorites to form the next government in Berlin. And that has convinced many in the energy sector that reports of nuclear power's demise may have been premature.

"If the CDU wins the election, economic aspects of the power industry would take precedence over the environmental," Klaus Rauscher, head of utility Vattenfall's European operations, told the Handelsblatt newspaper.

Investors favor nuclear stocks

Investors in Frankfurt this week appeared inclined to think likewise. Shares of those energy firms involved in nuclear energy such as E.ON and RWE rose on the stock market. Conversely, companies for renewable energy like wind and solar power came under pressure under the assumption the conservatives would cut subsidies for sectors presently favored by the Greens.

While few conservative politicians are openly for returning to nuclear power -- which remains highly unpopular with most Germans -- there is a move towards lengthening the lifespan of Germany's remaining atomic reactors.

"There is underlying support for lifting the limits regulating plant operating lives," Peter Paziorek, the environmental spokesman for the conservatives in parliament, told German news agency DPA. "That doesn't mean there is any perspective to build new nuclear power plants."

Phasing out power plants

Trittin enthüllt Poster zu Abschaltung Akw Obrigheim

Jürgen Trittin shows off a banner celebrating the closing of Obrigheim.

Obrigheim was the second reactor that was shut down as a result of the national nuclear phase out. The first to close was E.ON's 672 megawatt Stade reactor, which was switched off in November 2003. The 340 megawatt Obrigheim reactor will be prepared for permanent closure over the course of the year. There are 17 other atomic reactors still active in Germany.

Despite concerns by the public about safety and the environment, discussion about reviving nuclear power is coming back in vogue in Europe. Industry lobbyists are pushing it as an alternative to oil and coal, since atomic reactors produce almost no greenhouse gas emissions and petroleum prices remain at high levels.

But those arguments are unconvincing to German Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin, a leading Greens politician.

"We buried a decades-long conflict with the decision to phase out nuclear power," Trittin told DPA. "Anyone who wants to reverse that will be digging up old graves."

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