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The Tricastin nuclear power plant site of Areva in Bollene, southern France, (Photo: AFP MICHEL EULER/ Getty Images)
Image: Michel Euler/AFP/Getty Images

Nuclear power subsidies

Christoph Hasselbach / nh
July 20, 2013

A single newspaper report about German energy policy managed to cause a stir - but only in Germany. Was it a case of media hype – or did the EU backpedal after an unexpectedly strong reaction from Germany?


German daily paper, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung on Friday (19.07.2013) reported that the European Commission was working on plans that would mean a turning point in its energy policy.

According to the paper, the Commission was planning to allow state subsidies for the construction and operation of nuclear power plants. There was no official Commission paper, but the newspaper insisted it had a copy and the Commission would present its plans after the political summer break.

No matter just how much truth there is to the report, there were instantly strong reactions right across Germany – even from Chancellor Angela Merkel. At the daily midday press conference, the last before the summer recess, a Commission spokesman denied the claims made by the paper: "The EU Commission does not wish to encourage subsidies for nuclear energy."

RWE's windpower plants in Britain (Photo: RWE dpa/lnw)
Should EU states be allowed to subsidize nuclear power plants in the same way as wind power plants?Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Two factors explain the turmoil caused by the report, both in Germany and among German EU parliamentarians: the German decision to phase out nuclear power altogether by 2020, dubbed the ‘Energy Turnaround', would be put into question by plans to subsidize atomic energy EU-wide on the one hand; and upcoming parliamentary elections in Germany on the other.

Broad German front of rejection

The newspaper report suggested the European Commission would in future put nuclear power on a similar level as renewable sources of energy by arguing that nuclear power is a "low-carbon" technology and therefore climate-friendly.

That's why, according to the paper, subsidizing the expansion of nuclear energy would be made easier for EU states, in a similar way as renewable sources of energy can receive public funding today.

Even Chancellor Angela Merkel had soemthing to say about the Commission's alleged plans: "Germany voted against them, and that's what I support." Even before that, Rebecca Harms, the chairwoman of the Green party in the European Parliament, accused the Commission of doing a u-turn in energy politics that – according to her - didn't have the support of the majority of European voters.

"Oblivious of the risks, and ignorant of the unprofitability of nuclear energy and of the exploding costs that come with building new atomic reactors – this is a plan to go backwards into a nuclear past at full speed," Harms told DW.

Jo Leinen, a member of the European Parliament for Germany's Social Democrats, was equally shocked. He is planning to travel to Japan next week, where he intends to take a look at the destroyed nuclear power plant in Fukushima.

Fukushima, Leinen told DW, has become a warning symbol of the dangers of nuclear power. That's why he considers it utterly irresponsible to continue subsidizing nuclear energy with taxpayers' money.

Are nuclear plants profitable without subsidies?

Thorben Becker, an energy expert with German environmental organization BUND, accuses Commissioner for Competition's, Joaquin Almunia, of not having learnt the lesson from Fukushima. "He seems to care more for the interests of the big nuclear companies than for the security of the European population."

German and Polish anti-nuclear activists (Photo: Elzbieta Stasik)
Most of the 28 EU member states support nuclear power. Germany is one of seven wanting to phase it outImage: DW/Elzbieta Stasik

Christian von Hirschhausen, director of research with the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) in Berlin, said, that in general, it's no longer possible to run nuclear power plants profitably without public subsidies - especially seeing that companies tend to transfer consequential costs and the risk of radiation on the population and therefore on state coffers.

"Conventional cost calculations for nuclear energy usually neither include dismantling costs nor the costs for final disposal of atomic waste – not to mention the enormous cost that arises when big accidents like Fukushima or Chernobyl happen." Von Hirschhausen and others therefore believe public subsidies for nuclear reactors distort competition between the various energy sources and they would have a damaging effect.

German-only debate

What's interesting is that both the report in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung and the reaction to it to a large extent remains a German-only issue. What's also interesting is that after Fukushima, rejection of nuclear power has become a cross-party consensus in Germany. That used to be different. And it still is in other European countries.

Most EU countries running nuclear power plants are still more or less convinced of the technology – even after Fukushima. While there are some who may, or may not, phase out nuclear power eventually at a distant point in the future, others are said to be planning the construction of new reactors – purportedly as a measure of protecting the climate or of guaranteeing energy supply.

Before Fukushima, the ideological debate about the pros and cons of nuclear power was nowhere as intense as it was in Germany. And now the country has agreed on phasing out atomic energy, you'll hardly find any other industrial country that is as much in favor of renewable sources of energy as Germany. So, if the Commission one day does decide to do a u-turn and go back to supporting nuclear power, one thing is clear: Germany will not accept it without a fight.

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