Nuclear spark fires up German election campaign

12th July 2009, Comments 0 comments

The Kruemmel reactor near Hamburg, one of Germany's oldest, underwent last weekend what its Swedish operator Vattenfall called an "emergency shutdown" after a short circuit in one of its transformers.

Berlin -- Hiccups at an ageing nuclear reactor has enlivened Germany's election campaign, potentially giving the centre-left the chance to chip away at Chancellor Angela Merkel's commanding lead in the polls.

"If these incidents don't come to an end, or if there is a serious one before the election, it could cost her the wished-for majority" in the September 27 vote, the Berliner Zeitung daily said in an editorial on Friday.

The Kruemmel reactor near Hamburg, one of Germany's oldest, underwent last weekend what its Swedish operator Vattenfall called an "emergency shutdown" after a short circuit in one of its transformers.

It was the second such incident in several days at the plant, which had only just re-opened after two years of repairs following a malfunction in a transformer that had caused a fire and a shutdown.

Embarrassingly, Vattenfall has since admitted that it failed to install a vital safety sensor, and on Thursday it said most of Kruemmel's 80,000 fuel rods had to be checked.

In the eyes of voters, it is unclear how the two biggest parties -- the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) and Angela Merkel's CDU/CSU conservatives -- differ to any great degree on most issues, including the recession.

But when it comes to nuclear power, it is obvious where they stand.

Germany decided in 2000 under SPD ex-chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's coalition with the Greens to make the country nuclear-free by about 2020, when Merkel's conservatives were in opposition.

The SPD says it plans to stick to this -- and on Thursday its chancellor candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier moved to hammer this home, calling for Kruemmel to be shut down for good.

"The incidents at Kruemmel have shaken trust in nuclear energy in my view," said Steinmeier, who is also foreign minister and deputy chancellor.

Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel, also from the SPD, was quoted as saying that the planned shutdown of older plants like Kruemmel should even be speeded up.

But Merkel's conservatives, now coalition partners to the SPD, want to extend the life of some of the nuclear plants, if -- as polls suggest they will -- they can form a majority with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) in September.

Nuclear power generates around 30 percent of Germany's power but it remains unpopular, with shipments of radioactive waste attracting large protests from a vibrant homegrown green movement.

The conservatives argue that meeting Germany's targets on carbon emissions cuts will be impossible without atomic energy. They also want to reduce dependence on Russian and Middle Eastern gas and oil imports.

But it is far from certain whether Kruemmel will help boost the SPD's rock-bottom poll ratings at the expense of the CDU/CSU and stop them from entering opposition in September for the first time since 1998.

An opinion poll this week showed the Social Democrats trailing the conservatives by 16 points.

Klaus Peter Schoeppner from pollster TMS-Emnid said that the SPD, which notched its worst ever result in European elections in June, "has no votes to gain" using the nuclear topic.

"For the past 30 years, there has been a tendency in favour of nuclear energy in German public opinion, not because people think it's not dangerous but because of the rise in energy prices," Schoeppner told AFP.

The Frankfurter Rundschau agreed, saying in an editorial that when it comes to the crunch, other issues -- not least the sorry state of the German economy with rising unemployment and ballooning national debt -- will sway voters.

"In times of crisis, even for the Greens it's not certain how much the issue of nuclear power will be a vote magnet," the paper said.


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