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 time in office with proposals to postpone the date when Europe's biggest economy abandons nuclear power.

"The government yesterday approved a far-reaching and sweeping concept for energy production in the coming decades, making our power generation the most efficient and most environmentally friendly in the world," Merkel said Monday.

"This means that we need nuclear energy, as well as coal, as a bridge technology. I know that many people are very sceptical and critical of nuclear power, and we take these concerns completely seriously."

Opposition parties and environmentalists have vowed to fight tooth and nail against 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.

Germany's newest reactor, Neckarwestheim 2 in the southwest, built in 1988, will now not be switched off until around 2040, according to calculations by German media.

Merkel, 56, 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 challenge this in Germany's highest court.

Even if the extension becomes law, the Social Democrats (SPD), who made the decision in 2000 under former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder for Germany to go nuclear-free, 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."

Merkel "has created an election issue. The SPD and the Greens are going to make full use of it in 2011," when Germany holds six state elections, the Die Welt said in an editorial.

With no permanent storage site for radioactive waste in place and fears 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.

Nuclear power currently generates nearly one quarter of the country's power, while renewables produce around 15 percent. The remainder comes from fossil fuels like coal.

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 (dollars) 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 said that without nuclear power, Germany could forget about its target of reducing CO2 emissions by 80 percent in 2050 from 1990 levels.

© 2010 AFP

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