One of the fiercest opponents of nuclear energy is a German federal minister.
Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel of the center-left Social Democratic Party is one of the architects of the German plan to phase out nuclear energy by 2021. Earlier this week he increased the pressure on the German nuclear energy industry after security deficits surfaced at two plants run by Vattenfall Europe.
This week in Berlin, Gabriel said that within a year all 17 German nuclear power plants must have an updated, state-of-the-art security concept, and deficits had to be repaired more quickly than in the past -- otherwise affected plants would be "shut down" immediately.
One such plant is Brunsbuettel, in northern Germany, where on June 28 a transformer in the reactor short-circuited, causing an emergency shutdown. When the reactor was restarted on July 1, more irregularities and malfunctions surfaced that were not properly reported by Vattenfall Europe. Despite timely inquiries by the state nuclear safety organization, Brunsbuettel, built in the early 1970s, is notorious for its poor security and is "better shut down tomorrow," Gabriel said.
He added Brunsbuettel needed to remain offline for at least two more weeks as federal authorities were "thoroughly" checking security at the reactor.
Gabriel and his supporters argue that the risks of a nuclear meltdown outweigh any benefits that the energy source may have. They also point to the difficulty of getting rid of nuclear waste, not to mention what might happen if terrorists attack a nuclear power plant.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union, which governs Germany with the SPD in a "grand coalition," is not happy about Gabriel's latest war of words against nuclear energy. They see it as a move to even more quickly drive nuclear out of the country's energy mix, and such a plan has no backing in Merkel's party.
Phasing out nuclear energy, Merkel's CDU argues, is not timely in light of the changing reality in the energy world.
Finland and France are building new reactors, and the United States also plans to expand its portfolio of 41 nuclear power plants. In China, between 40 and 45 nuclear power plants are in the pipeline to feed the country's rapidly growing economy; in the past weeks, Beijing struck deals with U.S. and French companies over construction projects. In Russia, scientists and engineers are working to launch the first nuclear power station that floats on water, a project that -- if successful -- promises sales to Morocco and Namibia. Countries that have previously agreed to phase out nuclear energy -- like Sweden and Belgium -- have prolonged the running times of their plants or are even rethinking the phase-out.
Nuclear energy, the countries argue, is a cheap and reliable source of electricity; while nuclear had a terrible image after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, the growing need to fight climate change now polished nuclear's reputation as its energy production cycle doesn't emit greenhouse gases. Moreover, countries with few or no energy resources of their own want to become less dependent on potentially unreliable suppliers like Russia and the countries in the Middle East. Add to that ever-rising oil and gas prices, and even the high construction costs of a nuclear power plant may ultimately pay off.
Earlier this year the leaders of the Group of Eight nations in Heiligendamm agreed that nuclear energy belongs in the energy mix of the future. At the time, only summit host Merkel, the German chancellor, didn't agree -- not because she doesn't, but because she is bound to support the phase-out as part of the coalition agreement struck in Germany.
Observers say, however, that the phase-out itself will be phased out as soon as Gabriel and his SPD lose power in Berlin; once Merkel can rule on her own, she will hold onto nuclear, not only because of energy security, but also because of the German economy: As the whole word invests in nuclear, German companies could make a few bucks with their technology. India and China are known to pay well.