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Atomic decision

Christina Ruta / jiAugust 14, 2012

The German government is considering backing the construction of nuclear plants in foreign countries through financial guarantees. But campaigners say this goes against Germany's pledge to cut all forms of nuclear power.

Belene in Bulgaria, when it was under construction(ddp images/AP Photo/Petar Petrov)

The Fukushima nuclear disaster following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in March 2011, sent shockwaves around the world. In Germany, there was a massive public outcry against nuclear energy, which prompted the government to do a U-turn on its energy policy and pledge to get rid of all nuclear power by 2022.

Now, over a year later, the German government is considering backing the construction of nuclear reactors on foreign soil, with so-called Hermes guarantees. This came to light as a result of an inquiry to the government posed by Greens parliamentarian Ute Koczy.

Supporting exports

Apparently the government is considering providing export credit guarantees for German companies that are involved in delivering goods or services to new reactors under construction in eastern Europe and in developing countries.

The German Ministry of Economics claimed the Hermes guarantees "underwrite exports by providing an insurance against any shortfalls in payments for economic or political reasons." It could mean, therefore, that German taxpayers would end up footing the bill if the energy companies hiring German businesses were to default on their payments. The aim of the guarantees from the point of view of the German government is to promote the "opening up of new markets."

TEMELIN, CZECH REPUBLIC - AUGUST 11(Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Temelin in the Czech Republic is not far from the German borderImage: Getty Images

The German government is apparently considering an application for such guarantees for a new nuclear plant being built on the Chinese island of Hainan. There is also interest for projects in Cernavoda, Romania; in Jaitapur, India; Temelin in the Czech Republic; Wylfa in Wales; as well as Olkiluoto and Pyhäjoki in Finland.

Back in 2010, the German government gave its approval for deliveries to the construction of the nuclear power plant Angra III in Brazil. But since the Fukushima disaster government officials have been monitoring the safety of the plant, which is situated in a flood plain.

Safety gaps

Elsewhere too it seems as if safety is not being properly taken into account: Both in Romania and in India, the planned reactors will be situated in earthquake zones, according to Heffa Schücking, the head of the environmental organization "Urgewald."

Heffa Schücking, Foto: A. Griestop
Heffa Schücking is strongly critical of the German governmentImage: A.Griestop

"There's the added factor that the Indian nuclear energy authorities aren't up to the job," the environmental campaigner said. The Indian plant would be the biggest in the world, with a capacity of 1,650 megawatts.

"There is absolutely no experience in dealing with a plant of this size," Schücking said. As in China, there is no plan for the disposal of the nuclear waste, she added. She claimed that in China, the radioactive nuclear waste is often hastily buried in Tibet or other areas populated by ethnic minorities. She added that it's difficult to get information about projects and little value is placed on safety.

The German Economics Ministry said it places "particularly stringent requirements" on areas where it is considering export credit guarantees. That means that the "safety of people living near the power plant" is of central importance.

Contradiction in policy?

In response to the question of the extent to which the Hermes guarantees contradict Germany's nuclear exit strategy, the government makes a clear distinction between home and abroad.

Protests against the Angra III plant in Brazil(Fotos von Kai Loeffelbein / Campact)
Protests against the Angra III plant in BrazilImage: Kai Loeffelbein / Campact

"The decision of the German government to end the civil use of nuclear energy in the short-term only concerns energy use within the country," a ministry spokesman said. "That decision has no influence on the sovereign decision of other states to use nuclear technology."

Schücking was quick to criticize the policy: "We can't declare a technology to be such a high risk that we no longer want to use it within our borders and then provide export guarantees for precisely those countries where nuclear safety is hardly on the agenda."