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German aftershocks

March 14, 2011

Angela Merkel had hoped to put her extension of the lifespan of nuclear power plants behind her. But the anti-nuclear backlash after Japan's atomic crisis has forced her and her cabinet to rethink their stance.

Nuclear power plant
Nuclear power is highly controversial in German politicsImage: CC/Vladimir Leonidovich

The tsunami-induced emergency at multiple nuclear power plants in Japan has added fuel to the flames of Germany's anti-nuclear opposition, forcing Chancellor Angela Merkel to reconsider her government's controversial energy policy.

The website of German magazine Focus reported that Merkel had met with leaders of her conservative Christian Democrats over the issue. The report cited government sources as saying they had agreed to a moratorium on legislation passed last year that would extend the lifespan of German nuclear power plants by an average 12 years.

The moratorium would represent a dramatic change in course on behalf of the government, which has vehemently defended the lifespan extension as necessary to meet Germany's energy needs. But the crisis in Japan has strengthened anti-nuclear sentiment among voters, prompting some prominent politicians in her own party and coalition to defect from the party stance.

'We can't exclude anything'

In an interview Monday with German public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk, European Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger said the current situation at Japanese nuclear facilities was unthinkable just a few days ago, and that Europe needs to take this into account.

"If we take it seriously and say the incident has changed the world - and much that we as an industrial society have regarded as safe and manageable is now in question - then we can't exclude anything," he said.

Günther Oettinger
Oettinger said he could not rule out anything regarding nuclear power safetyImage: picture-alliance/Wiktor Dabkowski

Oettinger, a member of Merkel's Christian Democrats and Germany's representative on the European Commission, has largely backed Merkel's energy policy, which includes an average 12-year extension of the lifespan of Germany's nuclear plants. But his statements broke from the party line that shutting down nuclear plants is off the table.

Questions of safety

Merkel has called for new safety checks at Germany's nuclear power plants and has said her government is closely watching the situation in Japan to see what lessons can be learned. But she cautioned against "encouraging the people's fears" to win political points.

"Our nuclear energy plants are, according to all that we know, safe," she told public broadcaster ARD on Sunday.

Meanwhile opposition leaders have seized on the nuclear catastrophe in Japan as a chance to criticize the government's extension of nuclear energy use. Renate Künast, parliamentary leader of the Greens, said in plain terms: "We cannot master nature. Nature rules us."

A damaged nuclear plant in Japan
Several Japanese nuclear reactors have become insecure after the earthquakeImage: AP

Cracks in the coalition

Members of Merkel's own cabinet also began to backtrack on their support of the government's nuclear energy policy, with Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen calling on his party to start a new discussion on nuclear energy.

"The Christian Democrats cannot come up with answers from yesterday when the world today has changed," he said.

Even Merkel's Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor Guido Westerwelle, of the business-friendly Free Democrats, said he could imagine abandoning the government's lifespan extension of nuclear power plants in light of Japan's disaster.

Guido Westerwelle
Westwelle said he could imagine abandoning the government's energy policyImage: dapd

"We need a new safety analysis," Westerwelle said on Monday at a party meeting in Berlin. "We will also discuss the consequences [of nuclear energy] in Germany, and we will negotiate and decide quickly."

'Immediate' shutdown

Some of the clearest divergence from Merkel's party line came from the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, where more than 40,000 nuclear energy opponents on Saturday formed a human chain around a nuclear plant in protest.

State Premier Stephan Mappus, who faces a strong challenge from the opposition in upcoming elections, said he was creating an expert commission to analyze "all conceivable possibilities" that may threaten the safety of the state's nuclear plants.

Protesters in human chain
More than 40,000 turned out for a weekend anti-nuclear energy protestImage: dapd

"Nuclear plants that are found to not be in compliance with safety requirements will be shut down - not in seven years, not in 15 years, not in 20 years, but immediately," he said.

Mappus's environment minister, Tanja Gönner, echoed his statements, saying that the state government was "open-minded toward the results" of the security checks.

Meeting of the states

The responsibility of nuclear plant safety checks lies primarily with state governments, and Merkel said she would invite all 16 state premiers to Berlin - likely on Tuesday - to coordinate federal- and state-level discussions on nuclear safety.

State governments pose one of the biggest political obstacles to Merkel and her government's energy policy. Several state elections this year threaten to widen the opposition's majority in the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, which is composed of representatives of state governments.

The Bundesrat has also challenged Merkel's lifespan extension of nuclear plants in court, arguing the backdoor method used to approve it in the lower house violated states' rights.

Author: Andrew Bowen
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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