The "gas war" between Russia and Ukraine has fueled a heated debate in Germany about the country's energy policy, but Chancellor Angela Merkel reaffirmed her government's commitment to the nuclear phase-out.
Germany will get rid of its nuclear power plants
Chancellor Angela Merkel remains committed to phasing out the remaining nuclear power plants in Germany, her spokesperson Thomas Steg said on Wednesday.
In the aftermath of the bitter dispute between Russia and Ukraine over gas prices, which starkly exposed Europe's overwhelming dependence on Russian gas, some of Merkel's ministers, notably members of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) -- sister party to Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) -- argued that research into nuclear energy should continue despite the previous government’s decision to phase out this energy source over the next two decades.
The conservative parties, however, have practically no maneuvering space left on this issue. Both parties are bound by a coalition agreement with the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which explicitly instructs the grand coalition government to stick with measures to close all nuclear power plants by 2023.
"The coalition agreement is perfectly clear about this point," Steg said.
Conservatives stress nuclear power
Michael Glos wants to focus on domestic energy sources
Earlier this week, Germany's Economics Minister Michael Glos (CSU), said there needed to be a greater focus on domestic energy sources.
"It’s increasingly becoming apparent that we have to lay greater emphasis on resources available in Germany," Glos said. "German coal is one pillar and will continue to play a role as a source of energy. But I also want to draw attention to the fact that we still have a number of nuclear power stations in Germany which, unfortunately, are going to be turned off in a few years time just for political reasons."
The previous German coalition government of Social Democrats and the environmentalist Greens had struck a deal with German energy producers in 1999 to gradually phase-out the production of nuclear energy by 2023.
German conservatives have since been pushing to extend the life of Germany's reactors -- or to have the accord scrapped altogether.
A revival of nuclear energy in Europe
The conservative line dovetails with a reviving interest in nuclear energy in Europe, with several European nations considering the merits of nuclear power.
Finland is building Europe's first nuclear plant in a decade
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.
Proponents of nuclear energy argue that it emits almost no greenhouse gases or other pollutants and would ensure reliable power generation capacity within the environmental constraints of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.
Last year, Merkel also stressed that prolonging the lifespan of existing nuclear plants in Germany would also help the country to continue to export nuclear technology.
Social Democrats against rolling back phase-out
Ulrich Kelber, deputy parliamentary leader of the Social Democrats (SPD) says his party will resist any attempts to backtrack on the treaty.
"This accord is valid and it makes enormous sense," Kelber said. "It’s almost a ritual that Economics Minister Michael Glos raises this issue whenever energy prices go up or future energy supplies are allegedly at stake. None of these problems will be resolved by promoting nuclear energy and even global uranium deposits will be exhausted in about 20 years or so."
Hermann Scheer, energy expert of the SPD also stressed there was no question of freezing the planned nuclear phase-out.
The gas dispute has been a "wake up call," Scheer said. "The party is over," he said, adding that the answer only lay in renewable energy.
Renewable energy and power efficiency
Kelber urged the government under Merkel to continue to promote renewable energies and make additional efforts in saving energy.
A solar power station in Munich
"In this area, the government can support massive private investment so that by 2020 about one third of German energy needs can be generated through renewable energies," Kelber said. "On the other hand much can still be done in increasing energy efficiency in power generation and in both the public and private spheres. So there are many ways to reduce dependency on energy imports."
But not all the conservatives are convinced.
"It will be an illusion to believe that renewable energies can ever make a substantial contribution to German energy needs," Education and Research Minister Annette Schavan (CDU) said.
She has urged the Social Democrats to keep an open mind on the issue of nuclear technology, saying no source of energy should be ruled out.