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Nuclear row

September 28, 2009

Members of Chancellor Merkel's new center-right alliance on Monday reaffirmed their commitment to delay Germany's nuclear phase-out. The move has sparked protest from green groups and skepticism among energy experts.

A nuclear plant's cooling tower gives off steam against an early-evening sky
Nuclear plants supply 23 percent of Germany's electricityImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Katherina Reiche, a senior member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative CDU party, said on Monday that Germany needed nuclear energy as a "bridge" until renewables were able to fill the gap.

In an interview with public broadcaster ARD, Reiche said the aim was to extend the life-cycles of Germany's nuclear plants beyond a 2020 deadline.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and the FDP's Guido Westerwelle
Merkel and Guido Westerwelle of the FDP agree on extending the role of nuclear energyImage: AP

That view is shared by Merkel's new coalition partners, the business-friendly FDP. Both the conservatives and the FDP cite concerns about dwindling energy supplies, high oil prices and global warming to justify their push to hold on to nuclear energy.

The new center-right alliance may now scrap a law that required Germany's 17 nuclear plants to close by 2020.

"Opening a can of worms"

But Reiche's comments prompted strong protest by green groups and opposition parties who vowed to fight any reversal of nuclear policy.

"If they do it, they will open a whole can of worms in German society again, it is clear," Mathias Edler, a spokesman for Greenpeace, told news agency AFP. "People will go out on the streets, there is no other option."

Renate Kuenast, parliamentary head of the Green party, whose party was in coalition with form Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats (SPD) when the nuclear exit was approved by parliament, said opposing any change would be her "top priority."

Experts warn of major obstacle course

But some energy experts doubt whether the new government will be able to honor its campaign pledges on nuclear energy so easily.

"It's not such an easy task to change the existing nuclear law," Lutz Mez, an energy-policy expert Berlin's Free University, told Deutsche Welle. "This decision would need to pass both houses of parliament.

He also warned that any nuclear extension would be difficult because Germany lacked sufficient numbers of qualified workers to run the plants.

A protester holds up an anti-nuclear-energy poster
Nuclear energy is an emotive issue in GermanyImage: picture-alliance / dpa

Nuclear energy remains a highly controversial issue in Germany.

The world's worst nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986 turned a large part of German public opinion against nuclear power. Shipments of radioactive waste from nuclear plants to a processing plant in Gorleben in western Germany regularly attract huge protests.

Currently, Germany's 17 reactors supply around 23 percent of its electricity, with coal and gas producing more than 50 percent and renewables such as solar and wind power some 17 percent.

Concerns about nuclear waste and security are at the heart of anti-nuclear sentiments. But at the same time proponents claim nuclear energy is relatively clean, compared to fossil fuels like coal, which produces a lot of carbon dioxide emissions.

But Mez warned that "nuclear energy is not as clean as it pretends to be." Associated processes, such as uranium enrichment, also produce significant amounts of CO2 emissions, he said.

Expert calls for responsible extension

Others have called for a more responsible way of dealing with any possible extension of nuclear plants.

"If there is an extension, there also needs to be a commitment to investing the profits generated by this extension into energy research and creating an infrastructure for renewable energy sources," Claudia Kemfert, an energy expert at the Berlin-based DIW economic institute, told Deutsche Welle.

"But, of course, nuclear plants would not be keen to just give their profits away, so I'm interested to see how a new agreement between them and the government would look."

Kemfert suggested setting up an energy research fund, into which the nuclear companies could invest money.

Mez however rejected the idea, describing it as "impossible, because the nuclear plants will never want to reveal their profit statistics to the government."

Despite her doubts, Kemfert said that extending the nuclear plants' operation deadlines would buy the government more time to develop a better infrastructure for alternative sources of energy.

Author: Eva Wutke

Editor: Sonia Phalnikar