Opinion: German government discovers the risks of nuclear power | Germany | News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 15.03.2011

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Opinion: German government discovers the risks of nuclear power

The Japanese nuclear crisis has spread to Germany where the government has declared a moratorium on extending the lifespans of nuclear power plants. Deutsche Welle's Nina Werkhäuser says the reason is all too obvious.

Opinion graphic

The political fallout from the Japanese nuclear crisis has spread to Germany. Berlin on Monday announced a three-month moratorium on extending the lifespans of the country's 17 nuclear power plants in an apparent reaction to public sentiments at home to the escalating crisis in Japan.

The move could mean that a number of the older reactors could be shut down very quickly.

For Chancellor Angela Merkel, the moratorium is a way to buy time. She faces a series of key state elections this year - the next one is on Sunday in Saxony-Anhalt - whose outcomes, even without the Japanese crisis, do not look good for her center-right coalition government.

The chancellor knows all too well how many opponents of nuclear energy there are in Germany. She has repeatedly sought to assuage her critics with the argument that nuclear power is safe in a high-tech country like Germany.

Until now, the government has supported leaving even the oldest reactors on line until the last kilowatt hour of electricity is squeezed out of them. "Residual risk? We can live with it." has been the perfunctory response.

One of the first official acts of the center-right government after it was elected was to scrap a decision by the preceding center-left government to phase out nuclear energy.

Merkel's cabinet extended by many years the lifespans of Germany's nuclear power plants, even though many of them had been operating since the 1970s. The nuclear industry applauded the move, since it meant more money in its coffers.

Critical scientists and regular citizens, who were concerned for their health and that of their children, were dismissed. The public seldom heard about the small, though not innocuous, accidents that occurred.

The dangers are anything but imaginary. Terrorist attacks, plane crashes or power grid blackouts can trigger a nuclear accident, which could have devastating consequences in a densely populated country like Germany.

Why does a disaster like the one in Japan have to happen before taking a closer look here in Germany?

The government's sudden about-face is a transparent political maneuver. After all, the risks are well known.

With the announcement to possibly shut down several reactors, the government wants to demonstrate that it has the situation under control. But it's just futzing around. Indeed, with important regional elections coming up, Angela Merkel hopes to reduce the "residual risk" to her own political fortunes.

Author: Nina Werkhäuser (gb)
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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