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German Minister Dismisses Nuclear Energy Option

DW staff (tt)January 6, 2006

Germany's Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel came out in favor of renewable energy sources and called for an end of the current debate on whether or not to prolong the lifespan of the country's nuclear power stations.

Germany will focus on developing renewable energy rather than nuclear power plantsImage: AP

Earlier this week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had appeared resolved to put the lid on a simmering public debate on whether or not to keep the country's nuclear power plants in operation for a much longer period than envisaged by the former government under Gerhard Schröder.

Merkel said plans to completely phase out nuclear energy in Germany over the next two decades would not be revised despite the country's heavy dependence on Russian gas supplies.

Sigmar Gabriel
Germany's Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel

But this hasn't stopped high-ranking representatives from her own government from insisting that relying on nuclear energy in Germany would reduce the risk of one day becoming the target of political blackmail.

Talking to the media on Thursday, Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel was dismissive of suggestions that nuclear power was a viable and secure source of energy in the long term.

"In no other energy sector is our dependence on imports as big as in the nuclear field. We're actually talking about a 100 percent dependence, as far as uranium imports are concerned," Gabriel said.

Watch that basket

"In addition, world-wide uranium deposits will last only for another 20 years in the worst case, according to OECD estimates. There's a maximum reserve of no more than 4 million tonnes of uranium available at present, so it makes no sense to put too many eggs in this particular basket," he said.

Bildgalerie Atomkraft in Deutschland Forschungsreaktor FRM-II in Garching
The German government is resolute on closing down the country's nuclear power plantsImage: dpa

"No one wanting to draw up sensible energy policy could imagine investing billions of euros in an energy source that will be exhausted within a generation," Gabriel said.

Utz Claassen, managing director of a major German energy supplier from Baden-Würtemberg, fears that the closing down of nuclear power plants will shift the focus too much on to more coal-driven plants, which, he argues, would be detrimental to the environment.

"If we are serious about reducing carbon dioxide emissions for a healthier planet and keep energy prices under control, we can't really do without nuclear energy in the decades ahead," Claasen said.

Nuclear energy as a safety measure?

Several European nations are considering the merits of nuclear power at the moment. Finland has begun work on a new nuclear plant, the first to be built on the continent in a decade, and France's parliament also recently gave its approval for a new nuclear plant.

"A modification of the (German) government's current phase-out plan with a view to prolonging the lifespan of some of our nuclear power plants would certainly make sense in the face of the recent turbulence on the energy market," Claasen said.

Solar energy is the energy of the futureImage: Q-Cells

Environment minister Gabriel points out, though, that playing off nuclear against coal energy doesn't make sense at all. Nuclear power plants, he argues, do not produce any heating energy for households and industry, whereas gas and coal-powered stations do.

According to the environment minister, it's vital for Germany to ensure a sensible mix of energy resources to be used with a greater percentage of renewable sources in future.

"What's clear to me is that a total independence from energy imports will remain an illusion," Gabriel said.

"But we can certainly reduce our dependence by investing more in renewable energy. It'll also important to sign long-term supply contracts with a number of our partners abroad," he said.

Renewable energy is the answer

Gabriel sees no danger in continuing the country's large-scale cooperation with Russia, as far as gas and oil supplies are concerned.

He speaks of the need to ensure long-term delivery contracts and mentions that a greater shift towards suppliers from the Arab world wouldn't mean more planning security either. The scarcity of resources world-wide, he argues, should prompt Germans to be more aware of the need to save more energy.

According to McIlvaine Co. -- a US based energy consulting company -- the world renewable energy market will nearly double in sales from 2005 to 2008. Germany has the world's largest installed base for generating energy from wind and, after Japan, the largest solar energy grid.

Gabriel confirmed that Chancellor Angela Merkel will shortly be holding a summit of industry leaders and government representatives to discuss the country's energy-political strategy in the decades ahead.