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Germany

German nuclear debate re-heats as reactors are scrutinized

Opposition politicians enjoyed a field day capitalizing on Chancellor Merkel's nuclear power U-turn. But with ageing reactors shut down, many questions remain unanswered on the future of Germany's energy supply.

Greenpeace anti-nuclear protest outside chancellery

New demonstrations reflect German anti-nuclear tradition

Germany's opposition politicians had the wind rather taken from their sails on Tuesday. No sooner had the center-left Social Democrats, the Left party and the Greens demanded that Merkel shut down Germany's oldest nuclear reactors, than she did just that.

Following a crisis meeting, she announced that the seven oldest nuclear reactors in Germany would be shut down immediately, four of them, possibly, forever. But this does not say much about the future of Germany's nuclear power, because Merkel's plan is to put everything on hold until more safety checks have been carried out.

"We have a moratorium," the chancellor announced. "And during this moratorium - that is, until June 15 - all safety questions will be answered. Then we'll know what happens next. Then the consequences, if there are any, will become clear."

Frank Walter Steinmeier

Steinmeier was highly critical of Merkel's nuclear 'revolution'

Off the grid

Merkel is shutting down seven of Germany's 17 nuclear reactors - those put into operation before 1980. There are plans to shut four of these down permanently, including Neckarwestheim 1 in the state of Baden-Württemberg, the subject of huge demonstrations last weekend.

According to the latest official figures, Germany currently relies on nuclear power for about 23 percent of its annual electricity consumption. However, since nuclear power ensures a steadier supply than other sources, it accounts for 45 percent of the country's "base load" - the minimum amount of power that the electricity suppliers make available at all times.

But many nuclear opponents are now questioning how necessary nuclear reactors really are, considering that over a third of them have been shut down without any apparent energy shortfall.

On top of this, new concerns are emerging about the safety of Germany's reactors, following media reports that many are, like those in Fukushima, also "boiling-water" reactors. Four of the boiling-water reactors now being shut down in Germany - Brunsbüttel, Krümmel, Philippsburg 1, and Isar 1 - come from construction line 69, a design whose ability to withstand long-term pressure was questioned by scientists last autumn.

The Fukushima 1 power plant is 40 years old - if Merkel's original plan to extend the lifespans of Germany's nuclear reactors were implemented, some would be approaching 50 before they were withdrawn from operation.

Delaying the delay

Until last autumn, everyone thought nuclear power was being phased out. In 2002, while in government, the SPD and the Greens agreed with the energy companies that Germany would be nuclear-free by 2022. Anti-nuclear activist Sebastian Pflugbeil, president of the Society for Radiation Protection, says that because of this, many of the older reactors were not re-equipped or modernized in the past decade.

"We have in each nuclear power plant in Germany a long list of problems which can be solved through updates in the hardware, but that didn't happen in the last few years," he told Deutsche Welle.

Old debate, new questions

It is not exactly clear what will happen during the current moratorium, let alone after it. Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen faced a parliamentary committee on Wednesday to answer the opposition's questions. The most pressing of these was exactly what standards would be used in the new safety tests: the old ones drafted by the government, or the more stringent, updated ones, drafted by the opposition.

The session was closed to the press, but Röttgen's answers did not satisfy Bärbel Höhn, deputy chair of the Green party's parliamentary faction: "It's disastrous," she said when she emerged from the meeting. "Our questions were not answered. A new set of regulations for nuclear technology already exists. It could be put into force immediately, but that is not being done. That's why I'm very skeptical of this statement that safety is being put above everything."

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, head of the Social Democrats' parliamentary faction, criticized the government's original decision to extend nuclear power in Germany. "Those who're now saying that they're taking people's concerns seriously should have taken them seriously earlier," he told reporters.

Political motives

Angela Merkel and Norbert Röttgen

Merkel's energy policy is the subject of intense debate

The opposition's doubts were reinforced by statements made by the heads of Germany's energy companies, who seem fairly sanguine about the future of their extremely profitable power plants. Hans-Peter Villis is the CEO of EnBW, which operates two of the nuclear reactors that are about to be shut down. "We'll have to see how we deal with the moratorium," he said. "And after three months we'll play the game again."

There is a long tradition of popular anti-nuclear activism in Germany, dating back to before the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, and the fact that the energy companies are so relaxed only adds to the activist's worst fears.

Pflugbeil thinks the government's moratorium is little more than a ruse to defer a decision until after several crucial state elections, which are - coincidentally enough - coming up in the next three months. "I think it is an election trick," he said.

Merkel called the extension of nuclear power a "revolution" in the country's energy strategy. In the next three months, we should find out whether the revolution has simply been delayed - or whether the counter-revolution has already taken place.

Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Michael Lawton

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