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Germany

German Minister Says Siemens Should Scrap Nuclear Export

German Environment Minister Trittin has weighed in on the debate over Berlin's mired sale of a plutonium factory to China and warned plant owner Siemens it risks damaging its image if it goes ahead with the export.

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At the heart of the controversy -- the plutonium plant in Hanau, western Germany.

Germany’s controversial €50 million ($62 million) sale of a nuclear fuel-rod plant to China took a further twist on Saturday when German Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin warned plant-maker and electronics giant Siemens that it risked ruining its reputation if it pushed ahead with the export.

"The heads of the company must decide whether the ensuing image-loss is greater than the financial advantages of the deal," Trittin told German daily Die Welt. The environment minister stressed that anti-nuclear demonstrators and citizens’ initiatives would "not pass up the chance to once again brand Siemens as a nuclear company" if the plant, designed to produce fuel elements from plutonium, was exported to China.

Umweltminister Jürgen Trittin ohne Bart

German environment minister Jürgen Trittin

Trittin (photo) reminded Siemens of its separation from nuclear subsidiary KWU years ago and said the motive for the pull-out at the time had been the realization that "the nuclear business only amounted for five percent of the company’s profits, whereas it made up 50 percent of the criticism that Siemens had to face."

Trittin also pointed out that two thirds of Germans weren’t in favor of the export and added, "For a company that has a strong consumer orientation in mobile phones and computers, that is a definitive factor."

There was no official response from Siemens to the minister's allegations.

Nuclear deal threatens to split ruling coalition

Gerhard Schröder in China

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in China

Trittin’s criticism of the nuclear deal is just the latest in a snowballing dispute that has threatened to cause a rift in the ruling coalition between Chancellor Schröder’s Social Democrats and their junior partners, the anti-nuclear Greens. Schröder agreed to sell the plutonium processing plant to Beijing during a visit to China in early December(photo).

Though Schröder says Beijing has assured him the plant will not produce material for military purposes, the Greens fear China could still use the plant to produce weapons-grade plutonium for military use.

They say the export also smacks of hypocrisy, since Berlin is committed to phasing out nuclear power on German soil. Before the Greens agreed to share power with Schröder’s Social Democrats in 1998, they insisted that Germany abandon nuclear energy. Last month, the government moved to decommission the first of 18 nuclear power stations as part of the agreement.

The plutonium plant is based at Hanau, western Germany and was constructed in 1991 by Siemens. It was mothballed in 1995 without ever going into operation and still lies idle. Siemens had previously offered to export the complete facility to Russia in mid-2001, but the plan sparked political concern and was eventually dropped.

Export subsidies for nuclear technology questioned

The planned export to Beijing has also attracted the attention of Brussels, which is probing whether the deal violates European Union export rules.

On Saturday Green member of the European Parliament Heidi Rühle touched upon a new aspect of the issue and demanded the German government do away with export subsidies for nuclear technology. Rühle announced she would take up the matter with EU Competition Commissioner Mario Monti in January. "We want to be clear about how far such subsidies hinder free competition," she told AP.

Rühle added that there was an impression that Germany was phasing out nuclear energy at home, but German firms could still participate in constructing nuclear plants abroad.

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