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Nuclear debate

March 13, 2011

Chancellor Angela Merkel defended her government's policy of extending the lifespan of nuclear power plants in Germany as angry protesters formed a 40,000-strong human chain against atomic power.

A human chain of protesters, jumping in the air
Protesters formed a 45-kilometer long human chainImage: dapd

Chancellor Angela Merkel's government has come under fire for extending the lifespans of Germany's nuclear power stations, in the aftermath of the scare that followed an explosion at the Fukushima power plant in Japan.

Merkel said Germany's nuclear plants are safe but the government is watching Japan's accident closely to see if lessons can be learned.

The chancellor was speaking after meeting senior cabinet ministers and nuclear experts in light of fears of a meltdown at an earthquake-crippled Fukushima.

"We know how safe our plants are and that we do not face a threat from such a serious earthquake or violent tidal wave," she told reporters at a news conference.

"But we will learn what we can from the events in Japan, and in the coming days and weeks will follow closely what the analysis yields," she added.

Human chain

Merkel's nuclear policy is under scrutiny againImage: dapd

Over 40,000 protesters in southern Germany formed a 45-kilometer (28-mile) human chain from the Neckarwestheim nuclear plant to the nearby city of Stuttgart, demonstrating against plans that extended the life of Germany's nuclear power stations.

The protest was planned long before Friday's earthquake resulted in an explosion at Japan's Fukushima I nuclear power plant. However, protest organizers said the turnout was probably boosted by fears of a meltdown in Japan.

The demo, spearheaded by Germany's Green party and Social Democratic Party (SPD), is a reaction to the government's plan to keep the country's 17 nuclear power plants open on average of 12 years longer. A previous government, under former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, had decided a decade ago to phase them all out by 2021.

Debate heats up

The incidents in Japan have brought the topic of atomic power back to the fore of German political debate, as four German states gear up for elections later this month.

In a joint statement, Green party leaders Claudia Roth and Cem Özdemir said the possible meltdown in Japan demonstrated "that nuclear power is an uncontrollable, highly dangerous technology, even in a high-tech country like Japan that is equipped to handle all possibilities."

Özdemir told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper he expected Merkel to invite party leaders to an "emergency summit on atomic safety."

'No time for politics'

Claudia Roth und Cem Özdemir
Roth and Özdemir called nuclear power dangerous and uncontrollableImage: AP

German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, a member of Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats, said Germany's nuclear safety systems would have to be analysed in the light of the Japanese incident.

"This happened in a country with very high safety standards. That is why we are taking it extremely seriously," he told broadcaster WDR2. "We have to find out and analyse how it could have come to this. The fundamental question of whether we can guard against all dangers is now open again, and we will address that question."

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle indirectly denounced Germany's left-of-center parties for broaching the question of domestic power plants.

"When over 10,000 people in Japan have died, Germany's first reaction cannot be interparty debate because we have state elections," he said.

Fears of Chernobyl repeat

Neckarwestheim nuclear power plant
Neckarwestheim is home to one of Germany's 17 power plantsImage: dpa

Green party parliamentary group leader Renate Künast defended her party's calls to shut down nuclear plants.

"We may now be witnessing an accident that shows us how critical the whole situation is, how uncontrollable such a power plant is," she said. "We cannot master nature, nature rules us."

According to surveys, the majority of Germans have been consistently against nuclear power for years, largely due to the memory of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, during which radioactive rain fell on parts of southern Germany.

Authors: Bernd Grässler, David Levitz, Ben Knight (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa)

Editor: Toma Tasovac