Germany's Merkel sets stage for nuclear battle

6th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

German Chancellor Angela Merkel set the stage on Monday for perhaps the biggest fight of her political career with proposals to postpone the date when Europe's biggest economy abandons nuclear power.

Opposition parties and environmentalist have vowed to fight tooth and nail the move, announced after 12 hours of marathon talks by Merkel's squabbling cabinet that went into the small hours.

The decision, part of a "energy concept" due to go before the cabinet on September 28, will extend the life of Germany's 17 nuclear reactors by an average of 12 years beyond the previously planned shutdown of around 2020.

"We have together found a way to take Germany forward," said Economy Minister Rainer Bruederle.

"We want a new energy policy, we want to move forward to the era of renewable energy," Bruederle told public television on Monday morning.

Merkel hopes to be able to circumvent the upper house, where her coalition lost its majority earlier this year, with the necessary legislation, but the opposition has vowed to fight the extension in Germany's highest court.

Even if the extension becomes law, the Social Democrats (SPD), who made the historic decision in 2000 under former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder for Germany to go nuclear-free by about 2020, have said they will reverse it if they win power.

Ministers arriving at Merkel's chancellery on Sunday evening were greeted by protestors waving banners and blowing whistles, and nationwide street demonstrations are planned for September 18.

"I can promise the government a fiery autumn," warned Cladia Roth, co-head of the opposition Greens, while Gregor Gysi, co-head of the far-left Die Linke party, called the extension an "error of the highest order."

With no permanent storage site for radioactive waste in place and fears running high about a repetition of a disaster in Germany like the Chernobyl meltdown in Ukraine in 1986, polls indicate a majority of voters oppose an extension.

Merkel, due to make a statement mid morning, says she wants nuclear power to act as a "bridge" until renewable energies such as wind and solar, which currently produce about 15 percent of German power, can replace fossil fuels.

Nuclear power currently generates about a fifth of the country's power.

Volatile oil prices in recent years and the desire to reduce carbon emissions, produced by fossil fuels and blamed for climate change, have resulted in something of a renaissance of nuclear power around the world.

Opponents have accused Merkel of being pressured into the decision by the lobbying of powerful energy companies, which will reap billions of euros in extra profits from an extension.

Merkel wants to get her hands on some of these extra profits and divert the funds into expanding the renewables sector. Shares in the power companies were the top gainers on the DAX 30 in Frankfurt on Monday morning.

A government-commissioned report last month was meant to bring clarity but with so many variables, not least predicting future electricity and oil prices and demographics, it ended up highly inconclusive.

It did however outline how high the stakes are. Without nuclear power, the report said, Germany could forget about its target of reducing CO2 emissions by 80 percent in 2050 from 1990 levels.

"Ten or 15 years' extension. That sounds harmless, but it's not," said Tobias Riedl, Greenpeace's nuclear energy expert, on Friday.

© 2010 AFP

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