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Powering down

May 21, 2011

Precautionary measures and routine maintenance have shut down all but four German nuclear power plants. Chancellor Merkel's Bavarian sister party now says it wants to bring down the curtain on atomic energy altogether.

The Isar nuclear power plant
Germany's nuclear power plants are on the way outImage: picture-alliance/Ralf Kosecki

German power companies have warned consumers that they might face power shortages in the coming weeks, as only four of the country's 17 nuclear power plants were providing electricity to the national grid starting from Saturday, May 21.

Eight of the stations were taken offline as a result of Chancellor Angela Merkel's three-month moratorium on a law lengthening the running time of German nuclear plants. This freeze on the extension, introduced in response to the problems at the Fukushima plant in Japan, effectively removed the mandate allowing the oldest stations in the country to operate.

As of Saturday, the Emsland bei Lingen nuclear plant in north-western Germany became the fifth station to close its doors for three weeks of routine maintenance and safety checks, meaning that 13 of the country's power plants are temporarily out of commission for one reason or another.

The German power grid says it's currently buying electricity from Poland and the Czech Republic at most times of the day and night.

Bavaria goes anti-nuclear

Horst Seehofer, drinking from a big, Bavarian beer mug
Seehofer may need a stiff one: he's not really toeing the lineImage: dapd

The Bavarian faction of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative union, the CSU, set its first-ever target for Germany to stop using nuclear power late on Friday, suggesting a total withdrawal by 2022. The markedly conservative group that dominates Bavarian politics held a closed-door meeting for its top brass which ran several hours late as they debated the issue.

Bavarian State Premier Horst Seehofer said providing a fixed date would encourage the energy sector to concentrate on alternative solutions like renewable energies.

"There will only be investment if we establish clarity," Seehofer said.

This puts the CSU at odds with their national sister-party, Merkel's CDU, and with their pro-business FDP coalition partners, both of whom have not named a date for nuclear shutdown. Merkel tends to refer to nuclear power as a bridging technology on the path towards increased renewable-usage, but has shied away from any specific timelines.

"There will be very tight-knit solidarity within the Union," Seehofer said after the meeting, when asked whether his party's stance could damage relations with the national office. Merkel was also present in Andechs on Friday evening, although officially, she was visiting the after-party, not the CSU debate.

Workers at the Isar I nuclear plant in Bavaria protested the CSU decision, asking party leaders in an official letter to "stop fuelling fear and mistrust of nuclear power among the people."

Not soon enough?

Protesters rally against nuclear power in Berlin
Anti-nuclear protests like these are quite common in BerlinImage: picture alliance/dpa

Germany had been scheduled to stop all nuclear power production by 2020 as part of a legislation introduced by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrat and Green coalition, until the current administration overturned this law.

The Social Democrats were also set to debate Germany's energy policy over the weekend, with party leader Sigmar Gabriel advocating a return to the 2020 shutdown, and a reduced market share for the major players E.On, RWE, Vattenfall and EnBW.

The Green party, meanwhile, says the current government should complete a nuclear withdrawal before the end of the current legislative period in 2017, arguing that events at the Fukushima plant showed that nuclear power is not safe.

For years, Germany's anti-nuclear movement has been particularly strong, and public opposition has been further fueled first by the government's new energy policy and then by the earthquake- and tsunami-triggered accident at Fukushima. Poor showings in recent regional elections for Merkel's conservatives and their liberal allies were perceived in part as a public expression of this dissatisfaction.

Author: Mark Hallam (AFP, dpa, Reuters)
Editor: Toma Tasovac

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