An overwhelming majority in Germany's parliament has given the go-ahead for a reponsibility-splitting deal to clean up nuclear waste. It's the final chapter in a decades-long story.
The deal will require four of Germany's largest energy providers to pay more than 23 billion euros ($24.1 billion) into a state-administered fund to deal with the aftermath of nuclear power in return for legal immunity. The deal was passed with the votes of the ruling coalition of the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Green Party by a margin of 581 to 58.
The agreement is the latest step in Germany's decision to phase out nuclear energy, which was made after the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Addressing the Bundestag before the vote, Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel harkened back to the beginnings of the "no-nukes" movement among private citizens in Denmark, Germany and other parts of Europe in the mid-1970s.
"The stickers with the picture of the sun laughing became a symbol for a successful energy policy," Gabriel said, promising that Germany would safely dispose of nuclear waste rather than simply exporting it to other parts of the world.
Opposition to nuclear energy fueled the rise of the Green Party in the 1980s, and Thursday's vote is an indication of how much a part of the political mainstream that perspective has become.
"There were disagreements about nuclear energy for more than 45 years and now the consensus is that it's irresponsible," SPD deputy parliamentary chairman Hubertus Heil said in parliament. "Nowhere else in the world have people confronted the residual burden of the atomic age."
The CDU-CSU, which long supported nuclear energy, also hailed the deal.
"We stopped fighting the battles of the past and started cooperating constructively," conservative deputy parliamentary chairman Michael Fuchs said.
A golden handshake?
But not everyone is happy with the arrangement.
Under the terms of the deal, power companies will only bear part of the costs of the clean-up. The German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin (DIW) estimates that the bill for the decades-long nuclear phase-out could reach 170 billion euros ($178 billion).
"The actual costs will be a lot more than the estimates," DIW Energy Division Director Claudia Kemfert told Deutsche Welle in October, when the details of the arrangement were hammered out. "So the deal only covers a fraction of the actual costs, and society will have to pick up the rest."
Kemfert said that the power companies had gotten a "free pass," a sentiment echoed in parliament by the Left Party, which voted against the deal.
"The companies are being released from responsibility with a golden handshake," said Left Party energy spokeswoman Eva Bulling-Schröter."The costs are going to go up."
The issue of lawsuits filed by energy companies against the German government's nuclear phase-out has yet to be fully resolved. The government will now begin negotiations aimed at ending the various legal actions in return for the clean-up compromise.