Norbert Roettgen is an ambitious politician. A few months ago, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel handed him the environment brief, few knew about his convictions. Today, his bold stance on nuclear power dominates headlines in Germany.
Roettgen, 45, earlier this month broke with a campaign pledge of his Christian Democratic Union when he said the party should "carefully consider whether we want to make nuclear energy our unique feature," adding that, "even after 40 years there is no sufficient acceptance in the public for nuclear energy."
When Merkel's CDU was re-elected in a team with the free-market Free Democratic Party in September 2009, it was widely believed that nuclear energy would get a quick boost.
Both parties campaigned in favor of nuclear power, arguing that nuclear provides secure, relatively cheap CO2-free power and should remain in the mix until renewables are ready to take over.
After the parties were elected in a coalition, they were expected to reverse the planned phase-out of the controversial energy source.
Decisions have not been made yet, however; Berlin has vowed to publish a new energy strategy by October and, until then, it will likely remain unsure which of the 17 remaining reactors -- or if any at all -- will be saved from closure.
Agreed in 2000 between the government and the country's utilities, the German nuclear phase-out plan foresee all German reactors to be shut down by 2021.
Roettgen is the first major CDU official to openly question this plan and his remarks, uncommented upon by Merkel, angered officials in the pro-business FDP.
Economy Minister Rainer Bruederle, of the Free Democrats, told the Bild am Sonntag weekly that no one wanted to build new nuclear plants, but added:
"If we don't want electricity prices to go through the roof, we must build a bridge to the renewable age. For the coalition this bridge is, along with the use of clean coal, nuclear energy."
Meanwhile, Roettgen is not wavering. Over the weekend, he reiterated his anti-nuclear conviction.
"We have defined nuclear energy as a 'bridge technology.' The bridge ends when renewable energies can reliably replace nuclear energy," he told Berlin daily Tagesspiegel. "When we have a goal before our eyes we can achieve it quickly."
Observers say nuclear only has a future if the utilities agree to put the major part of the extra revenues from the longer running times into a fund aimed at boosting renewable energy sources and nuclear safety research.
Germany's utilities are wary of the delay, not knowing where and when to invest.
They have recently been focusing on Britain's emerging nuclear market. Eon and RWE have decided to team up to build nuclear power plants there, promising to invest around $25 billion in the endeavor.
Duesseldorf's Eon is one of the major public utilities in Europe and the world's largest private energy company. It employs more than 90,000 people. Essen's RWE employs 65,000 people and is Germany's second-largest energy company.