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Germany to remain “anti-nuclear”

Germany will uphold staunch political opposition to atomic energy, unperturbed by the mood swinging back in favor of nuclear power elsewhere. Oil at record highs, climate worries, and the need to cut dependency on energy imports is due to move the British government to back new nuclear power plants on Thursday.

But Germany, Europe’s biggest and most central power market, will not follow suit. Faced with a critical and vigilant electorate, no German government will be able to turn back a seven-year old nuclear exit program for its 17 reactors, which must be completed in 2021. Nor will anyone suggest a new generation of power plants. „There is no majority either inside the parliament or in the population to go back on the withdrawal program, or to back new reactors,” said Rainer Baake, a Green Party politician and former state secretary in the Berlin environment ministry. „The reasons are the same as ever, the unresolved nuclear safety and waste disposal issues. If civilian use is sanctioned, this could also invite military uses and terror attacks,” he said, naming hard reasons that unify nuclear critics. What’s more, many German citizens combine their antagonism for nuclear power with dreams, that their energy could be safe, clean and cheap, even if the current energy mix is far from it. Conservative national newspaper FAZ recently polled Germans about, where most power was likely to come from over the next three decades. A startling 63% believed it could be from solar energy, 50% banked on wind power, while just 39% named nuclear, 35% gas, and 12% coal. The reality, however is, that coal provides half of all German electricity, nuclear under a third and hot favorite solar only 0.4%.

Political Taboo
Germans’ hostile stance on nuclear power, coupled with a somewhat romantic view of nuclear’s real contribution -- which turns a blind eye to nuclear imports from France and the Czech Republic -- reflects the Green movement’s strong influence. Many of today’s decision makers grew up at a time when the green cause was the leading civil rights movement, parts of which scorned technology, yet dreamt of a sustainable future. „Those, who became politically aware in that era have their identity invested in that world view and wouldn’t change it even if they knew better,” said a source, who is wanted to be unnamed. Nevertheless, green ideology has produced strong research on alternative energy and thriving renewables industries that make Germany immune to some of nuclear energy’s promises. Renewable energy accounted for more than 14% of German power consumption in 2007, up from almost 12% in 2006, with wind - as the main contributor, industry data show.

„It may seem attractive for some countries to invest in nuclear power to get around the problems of supply security and dependency on energy imports,” said Uwe Fritsche of the Oeko Institut for applied ecology, an independent think tank. „Our argument is that the same money would go further if it was spent on a sensible mix of energy efficiency and renewables investments, but that would involve more players so that it might be more complicated to achieve,” said Fritsche, the institute’s coordinator for energy and climate protection. Baake and Fritsche said showcase nuclear projects such as Finland’s new plant or those yet to be built in China, were not economically feasible without state guarantees and subsidies. German anti-nuclear lobbies have also seized on studies suggesting a higher susceptibility to leukaemia in children living near nuclear plants and on nuclear safety glitches at operator Vattenfall Europe last summer. Vattenfall misjudged the mood of the population about safety incidents at two plants. It gave too little information too late and was promptly punished with the loss of 200,000 customers.

Playing for Time
Germany’s planned nuclear phase-out remains one of the most divisive issues in Chanellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government of conservatives and Social Democrats (SPD), even if it is currently swept under the carpet as local elections are coming up and national elections are due next year. Under the deal, operator RWE’s Biblis A, EnBW’s Neckar 1 and Vattenfall’s Brunsbuettel power stations would in theory have to be shut over the next two years. The utilities have been accused of playing for time by lengthening repair downtimes and seeking to borrow production quotas from newer nuclear plants in the hope the conservatives will win the next election and reverse the exit deal from 2010.

Merkel is in favor of lengthening the plants’ life times, but will not risk an open row with the SPD, which stands by the exit deal struck by former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Utility heads and conservative Economy Minister Michael Glos frequently point out that nuclear energy must be kept alive to allow renewable industries to catch up, as Germany must meet long-term commitments to cut carbon dioxide emissions. „In this situation, the politicians must bite the bullet and support nuclear because of Germany’s environmental obligations,” said Berthold Hannes, energy expert at consultancy Bain & Company. „I can’t see a realistic scenario for replacing nuclear power in Germany, especially with CO2-free production.” (Guardian, UK)