Germany rethinks phasing out nuclear power

By STEFAN NICOLA, UPI Germany Correspondent   |   Feb. 7, 2006 at 8:31 AM
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BERLIN, Feb. 7 (UPI) -- Germany's grand coalition is still bickering over the country's future energy mix despite an already agreed-upon plan to phase out nuclear energy.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives are increasingly unhappy with the plan to shut down by 2021 all 17 nuclear plants still active in Germany. The previous coalition government of Social Democrats, or SPD, and Greens struck a deal with the German energy industry in 1999 to gradually phase out the production of nuclear energy.

Germans overwhelmingly backed the plan, but the tide may slowly turn, observers say. Skyrocketing electricity and heating bills have angered the population, and Germany's four main energy companies, E.on, RWE, Vattenfall Europe and EnBW, in the past month introduced repeated price increases. At the end of January, Vattenfall announced some 3 million households in Berlin would have to pay up to 6 percent more for electricity in 2006.

Merkel argues she wants a broad mix that includes solar and wind energy, two renewable sources the past government heavily subsidized. Critics say building the hundreds of rather inefficient wind energy turbines cost German taxpayers billions. Merkel also wants to keep coal and nuclear energy in the mix.

The conservatives argue that in light of Germany's dependency on foreign energy (it has virtually none of its own resources), the country could use the edge in technology it has acquired over the years, especially as China is building new plants every year.

Companies are also looking at the possibility of keeping nuclear energy, but for different reasons, an energy expert said.

"It's a political topic. Atomic energy plants are money machines for Germany's four large energy companies, which dominate the market," Markus Duscha, head of the energy program at the Institute for Energy and Ecological Research at Heidelberg University, told United Press International in a telephone interview. "They have been slow to improve energy efficiency and modernize in terms of renewable energy sources."

The Social Democrats have so far stood tight by the agreement, with several SPD lawmakers reminding Merkel and her conservatives to abide by the coalition treaty. Nuclear energy is safe in case of no emergency, but what if a plant blows up, and what to do with nuclear waste? That calls for getting rid of nuclear energy, they argue.

Consumers have their own way of dealing with the price increases: Those who have one have fired up the old tiled stove with dead wood collected in forests.

But the Russian-Ukraine energy row earlier this year and the instability in the Middle East is beginning to unsettle leading German politicians, even Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a Social Democrat.

"Global security is directly connected with energy security," Steinmeier said Sunday at the 42nd Munich Security Conference, which drew some 300 high-ranking politicians and security experts from all over the world. He said he was in favor of European nations working together to secure supplies in the future.

When Russia's state-controlled energy giant Gazprom shut off natural gas delivery to Ukraine after the country refused to pay higher prices, leading conservatives in Germany used the incident to call for keeping nuclear energy.

"Of course (instability in the Middle East and Russia) is ammunition for them," Duscha said. "Yes, you can technically heat with atomic energy, but the dependency factor is similar. Only a few countries in the world produce the fuel needed."

Other energy experts have said Germany needs to become less dependent on foreign oil, but should do so by fostering cooperation with other countries, such as building solar power plants in Portugal or North Africa.

Some countries in Europe do not have Germany's problems: Finnish consumers pay roughly half the German prices. The bills are held down by an unconventional energy mix of bio mass (with wood garbage from Sweden) and nuclear energy (from domestic plants).

As oil prices are set to go up, renewable energy sources are the way to go, Duscha said.

"We should hold tight to the plan to phase out nuclear energy," he said. "If we keep questioning and weakening that plan it will hurt security in the energy sector in the long run."

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