BERLIN, June 29 (UPI) -- Germany plans to phase out nuclear energy by 2021, but the country's energy companies are racing to build new atomic power plants all over Europe, much to the dismay of the governing Social Democrats.
The other half of the German government, Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democrat Union, or CDU, is likely to silently cheer over a new advance by German power giant E.ON, which Wednesday announced it is bidding for a concession to build a state-of-the-art nuclear power plant in Cernavoda, Romania.
While such a project runs contrary to the plan to shut down all 17 remaining German atomic power plants by 2021, the CDU leadership is not keen on that roadmap anyway.
The phase-out has been crafted in a deal between the former Social Democrat/Green Party government under Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and the energy industry; in the coalition negotiations late last year, CDU and Social Democrats, or SPD, recognized their opinion differences when it comes to nuclear energy.
The CDU has ceased to conceal its view that the phase-out should be sacked. Members say the country has to try to remain energy independent, and argue atomic energy is much more climate-friendly than oil and gas. Leading conservatives called for an extension of the more modern plants' running times as a possible compromise.
The SPD, however, stood strongly by the plan -- both parties later agreed to keep the phase out in the coalition treaty, but it is likely the agreement will be slashed once the CDU gets a chance at governing alone.
"The CDU has expressed that it doesn't see itself bound to that agreement after 2009," Friedemann Mueller, energy expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs Thursday told United Press International. "And that's of course a further incentive for the energy industry to keep pushing into the atomic energy sector."
E.ON, which sees much growth potential in the Eastern European power market, said it is currently assessing possible power plant projects in the Netherlands, Germany, Hungary and Slovakia, the latter two likely to be nuclear power plants. Another German energy giant, RWE, is interested in a cooperation to build the nuclear power plant in Romania.
E.ON Energy head Johannes Teyssen in so many words said his company would keep pushing energy sources, even if they have been sidelined by politics.
"Either we accept a growing regulation of the national and international energy policy -- then we are dictated in what we invest, how we behave and where we can grow," he explained Wednesday in Munich. "Or we energetically face the competition on a European stage. We decided to do the latter."
It will not improve the lobby of the SPD to phase out nuclear energy if German companies evolve into market leaders of the controversial technology. Siemens, one of Germany's most prominent companies, is also keen on keeping its technology edge when it comes to building safe and modern nuclear power plants.
"This is of course a nuisance for most people in the SPD," Mueller said.
Greenpeace Germany, which also favors shutting down nuclear energy, even said the firms' push for nuclear power projects are political "slaps in the face" to the German government.
The E.ON offensive did not, however, "undo the decision of the German society not to accept any longer the risks of nuclear energy and the effects of its monopolistic position," the deputy leader of the SPD parliamentary group, Ulrich Kelber, told Thursday's Berliner Zeitung newspaper.
A year ago, the phase-out was thought to be a done deal with large portions of the German public supporting it; however the scales look to have been tipped the other way by now.
"The polls look different today," Mueller said. "People are beginning to accept nuclear energy again."
Germany has always had a strong anti-nuclear energy movement, which gained massive support especially after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, when an explosion inside the Russian reactor sent a lethal radioactive plume into the night sky, radiating the area for 10 straight days and creating acid rain all over Europe. Estimates of the number of people who died or will die as a result have ranged from 9,000 to 93,000.
But more than 20 years later, the fear of another such accident has been pushed aside by other concerns, mainly high oil prices, the Greenhouse effect and energy security.
The New Year gas price tangle between Russia's state-owned energy giant Gazprom and Ukraine caused concern in Berlin, after Moscow temporarily shut off supply when Ukraine didn't agree to pay higher prices.
Despite an otherwise spotless record as a supplier, European officials have become increasingly worried about Gazprom, and Merkel in April called for a summit to discuss the energy security of her country.
Energy security will also be the central topic of the July 15-17 Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, where Moscow will do anything to convince Europe it is a partner that will reliably supply the continent with oil and gas for the foreseeable future.