Japan Atomic Woes Trigger Policy Review in Germany

  • by Julio Godoy (berlin)
  • Inter Press Service

Pressed by the opposition and the anti-atom movement, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced on March 14 that her centre-right coalition government, made up of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Free Democratic Party (FDP), had decided to temporarily reverse its earlier decision to prolong the lifetime of all nuclear power plants operating in the country.

Explaining a three-month 'moratorium,' Merkel said that after the nuclear catastrophe in Japan 'we cannot go on as if nothing had happened.' She added that all 17 nuclear power plants presently operating in Germany would be submitted to 'new safety controls.'

At the same time, Merkel said, Germany's two oldest nuclear power reactors -- Neckarwestheim 1 in the south-western state of Baden-Wuerttemberg and Biblis A in the western state of Hesse -- would be shut down in the coming weeks. However, Merkel said that Germany still cannot do without nuclear energy.

According to their original construction plans, Neckarwestheim 1 and Biblis A, which started operations 36 and 35 years ago respectively, should have been shut down in late 2010. But last September the conservative CDU-FDP coalition government granted their operators an extension until 2018.

Merkel’s government gave this new permit in the framework of its decision to prolong the lifetime of all 17 nuclear power plants by an average of 12 years. In the aftermath of the disaster at Japan's Fukushima plant, Merkel has come round to the view that the other 15 nuclear power plants should undergo 'immediate tough safety controls.'

Over the weekend, the German environment minister Norbert Roettgen called the explosion and meltdown in Fukushima 'a turning point' in the civilian use of nuclear energy. Roettgen pointed out that the catastrophe had happened in 'a country with very high safety standards.' This would give cause to the German government to reconsider its energy policy, he added.

'We are taking (the safety of nuclear power plants) extremely seriously,' Roettgen said.

Such considerations show the dimensions of the shock caused by the nuclear crisis in Japan. Only last September, the German government had decided to reverse the phasing out of nuclear power, adopted by the predecessor government comprised of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Greens.

In 2001, the Green-SPD coalition, in consensus with the four largest operators, had ordered the phasing out of nuclear power in Germany by 2021.

The reversal of this phase-out meant that the most recent nuclear power plants would be operating until the late 2040s. By so doing, the centre-right German government ignored the opinion of practically all energy and environmental experts in the country, who have consistently maintained that Germany could do without nuclear power by the mid 2020s and generate all electricity it needs from renewable sources by 2050.

The original phasing out of nuclear power led to the shutdown of the two oldest plants, and was accompanied by a vast state-led programme of support for the use of renewable energy sources. Thanks to this programme, Germany was by 2010 one of the world leaders in the use of wind and solar energy, as well as of biomass.

But the Merkel government argued last September that the phasing out of nuclear power was a mistake, since the German nuclear power plants 'are the safest in the world.'

At the time, environment minister Roettgen called the 12-year prolongation of the lifespan of all German nuclear plants a 'cornerstone' of energy policy. Merkel even talked about a 'revolutionary concept', and praised nuclear energy as 'a technology bridge' that was indispensable until Germany could generate all of the country's energy needs with renewable sources.

But the explosions and meltdown in Fukushima, supposedly conceived to withstand the strongest imaginable earthquakes, has revived the traditional German public opposition to nuclear power, and thus forced the government to suddenly rethink its own policy.

On Mar. 12, one day after the Japanese catastrophe, some 60,000 anti-nuclear activists formed a human chain of some 50 kilometres around the nuclear power plant of Neckarwestheim, the oldest nuclear power plant in operation, located some 470 kilometres south of Berlin.

On Mar. 14, tens of thousands of anti-nuclear activists demonstrated in some 250 cities across Germany, from Bremen and Kiel in the north to Munich in the south.

The German government's rethinking is also motivated by the forthcoming regional elections, especially in the south-western federal state of Baden Wuerttemberg, a traditional conservative stronghold.

According to opinion polls, the CDU could lose the state parliament elections there, scheduled for Mar. 27, for the first time since the founding of the German Federal Republic in 1949.

The Green party is expected to win the local elections, also a first in German politics, and form a coalition government with the Social Democratic party. Both parties are opposed to nuclear power.

The government decision to put a 'moratorium' on the extension of the lifespan of German nuclear power plants was dismissed by both the SPD and the Green parties as a trick to pre-empt the electoral consequences of the nuclear catastrophe in Japan.

Most energy and environmental scientists agree that Germany can in the medium term get rid of nuclear energy with no downsides on the economic or electricity fronts. On the contrary, there is a consensus that reversing the phasing out of nuclear power was a major mistake by the present government.

Typical of this consensus is a paper on the German energy policy, released February 17, by the prestigious Federation of German Scientists (VDW). It labelled the extension of the lifespan of nuclear power plants as 'a deal between government and operators' aimed at reinforcing the latter's 'monopolistic' control over the national electricity market.

The scientists further pointed out that by prolonging the lifespan of nuclear power plants, the government had agreed 'to slow down the ecological modernisation of the German electricity generation infrastructure.'

The deal, they said, would 'substantially hinder the further development of renewable energy sources' in Germany.

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service