Spearheading Saturday's anti-nuclear march - just three weeks ahead of Germany's general elections - were farmers on 400 tractors. They oppose proposals to transform a former salt mine in northern Germany's rural Gorleben area into Germany's long-term storage site for radioactive waste. Plutonium, for example, has a half-life of more than 24,000 years.
On the eve of the Berlin protest, Merkel had told the newspaper Westdeutschen Allegemeinen Zeitung (WAZ) that a stalled risk appraisal of Gorleben, including its geology, should proceed and that findings should be “open-ended.” She also described a nuclear phase-out by 2020 as “false,” saying usage of nuclear stations should be extended.
That's despite outright rejection of Gorleben as a site by her Federal Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD). He recently said Gorleben storage prospects were “dead” and that the future “belongs to renewable energies.” Since 2004 the SPD has been coalition partners but also rivals in Merkel's cabinet which also comprises her Christian Democrats (CDU) and Bavarian allies, the Christian Social Union (CSU).
On Friday, SPD chancellor candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier accused Merkel's conservatives and her potential coalition partner, the pro-business liberal Free Democrats (FDP) “of leading the country into an energy policy dead-end and endangering domestic security."
Also opposed to any reversal of the nuclear exit law are Germany's oppositon Greens who were in a federal government with the former SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder when the phase-out legislation was adopted in 2001.
Germany's parties divided over energy mix
The SPD says it wants a climate-friendly energy mix with renewables providing 50 percent by 2030. Merkel's conservatives and the FDP argue that it would be irresponsible to rush a phase-out of nuclear energy before it is clear that other sources can make up the deficit.
Organisers drawn from some 100 lobby groups had insisted that Saturday's rally be kept free of party campaign politics. Election candidates were to stay off the stage. One rally organiser and anti-Gorleben site campaigner Wolfgang Ehmke: “We don't really trust the political parties. After the elections they change their minds.”
"We are very, very furious that the government never stopped this project and our chancellor Mrs Merkel announced that she, with a new government, would continue. We want to stop it.”
Hubert Weiger, the chairperson of BUND, which is the German offshoot of the Friends of the Earth International, described any renaissance of nuclear energy as “madness.”
“These plants produce 500 tonnes of nuclear waste every year that we don't know what to do with. Germany's attempts at storing nuclear waste in salt have failed.”
“We assume that whoever wins the elections pressure (from) the nuclear companies will increase.” “The CDU/CSU would be well advised to listen. That goes for Bavaria as well where even the majority (of the) population is against nuclear energy.
"They are stopping focus on renewable energies. By 2012-2013 Germany will be generating so much energy from renewables that it will equal the entire production of electricity from nuclear generators.”
Energy mix already diverse
Germany covers about 23 percent of its energy consumption with nuclear power, compared to 42 percent from coal-fired power stations, according to data from the German energy industry association BDEW. It says 14 percent comes from natural gas-fire generation and 15 percent from renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar and thermal.
France, in contrast, gets about 80 percent of its power from nuclear energy and even exports a significant amount of it.
On Thursday, a board member at German energy utility RWE, Rolf Martin Schmitz, told a conference on global energy security in Cologne that independent studies had shown that keeping Germany's nuclear plants running for another 25 years would add hundreds of billions of euros to the economy.
"Ideological convictions aside, I can see a lot in favor of the idea, which would be in line with worldwide practice,” he said.
Nuclear issue could become hot topic
Nils Diedrich, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University, expects the nuclear issue to become a hot topic, if Merkel is able to form a coalition with the Free Democrats after the September election.
"If the CDU and FDP do actually win power and push through an extension of nuclear power we'll see a real battle. Then there will be massive demonstrations," he predicts.
Opinion surveys show that a majority of residents in Germany oppose nuclear power. According to a Greenpeace study released on Saturday, 59 percent of Germans are opposed to extending the life of the nuclear plants.
Editor: Nigel Tandy