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Germany

German Parties Set to Clash Over Nuclear Power

The future of nuclear energy is set to be a key battlefield in talks between Germany's potential coalition partners with both bracing for a showdown over the emotive issue.

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Just hot air or will nuclear energy split the partners?

One of the most crucial pieces of legislation passed by outgoing Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's coalition of Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens, in the eyes of many, was a planned phase-out of Germany's atomic energy plants by 2020.

The idea, largely pressed by the environmentally-friendly Greens, was to focus on renewable energy and away from a crippling dependence on oil. It also found support at a time when safety concerns over nuclear power reactors were highlighted with accidents like the one in Chernobyl in 1986.

But that law now faces an uncertain future with Germany's new government set to comprise the conservatives and the Social Democrats in a power-sharing alliance by the end of November.

Economic arguments

The conservatives led by chancellor-designate Angela Merkel have made no secret of the fact that they intend to put the brakes on the nuclear-phase out.

Angela Merkel p178

Angela Merkel fears Germany may lose out if it halts nuclear-power production

Earlier this year, Merkel argued in a speech that if Germany is no longer active in nuclear power it would have no influence on the international market when it comes to exporting nuclear technology.

"In my view, an ideologically motivated nuclear phase-out does not reflect economic demands," Merkel said, citing the fact that countries such as India and China are expanding their nuclear energy capacities.

"For me, the question is, how can Germany with its technical know-how profit from this export potential. As a patriot, I would like to see my country profit from our expertise, not watch others take the profits."

Merkel's rhetoric could have been put down to mere election-speak at the time. But now with a federal election forcing the two largest parties into a grand coalition and the hard negotiating over policies gathering momentum, the issue of nuclear energy is proving to be a key test for the future partners.

SPD, conservatives dig in their heels

Signs over the weekend weren't encouraging with both sides sticking to their positions.

Kernkraftwerk Biblis

A nuclear reactor in Biblis, Germany

"The lifetime of nuclear power stations cannot be extended," SPD chairman Franz Müntefering told Bild am Sonntag newspaper, adding that a so-called nuclear compromise hammered out between Schröder's government and energy companies in 2000 and which became law in 2002, must be upheld. The law foresees phasing out the last of Germany's 17 nuclear power plants by 2020.

However, the conservatives are keen to provide Germany, a large importer of oil and gas, with greater energy security and allow the energy industry to earn more by extending the life of their plants.

In a guest commentary in Bild am Sonntag, conservative premier of Baden-Württemberg, Günther Oettinger urged the future government not to switch off any nuclear power plants in the next four years and to generally extend their lives.

"We need time and money to further develop stable renewable energy sources," Oettinger wrote. "The extension of the lifetimes of nuclear stations with maximum security standards can give us both."

But, Michael Müller, vice-chairman of the SPD parliamentary group demanded that the conservatives finally recognize that they "have no chance" to chip away at nuclear phase-out with the SPD.

Müller argued that if the nuclear plants were indeed allowed to run longer, they would have to undergo updated security modifications -- something that would cost money, he said.

Nuclear energy makes comeback

The two future coalition partners have thus far made steady progress on a host of issues, from budgetary policy to renewable energy. But it seems unlikely that the same will be seen on nuclear energy, which is set to dominate talks next week.

Atomkraftwerk in Finnland

The Loviisa southern Finnish nuclear power station

One thing that's bolstered the conservatives' case is the fact that nuclear energy has been gradually making a comeback in Europe with the first new nuclear plant on the continent in years being built in Finland.

Its supporters also point out that nuclear reactors emit virtually no greenhouse gases.

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