German cabinet approves contentious nuclear plans

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet approved on Tuesday hotly disputed plans to postpone by more than a decade the date when Europe's biggest economy abandons nuclear power.

"For the first time in many years, a German government is setting out a energy plan for the long term," Economy Minister Rainer Bruederle told reporters in Berlin.

"It sets out a good and detailed roadmap with the era of renewable energy as the destination."

In a country with strong public misgivings about the safety of nuclear power, the German government in 2000 under ex-chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to switch off the last of its 17 reactors by around 2020.

But Merkel's centre-right administration wants to extend the lifetime of the reactors by up to 14 years in order, meaning that Germany will still have nuclear power as part of its energy mix until around 2035.

Merkel says this will give Germany time to build up its wind and solar power capacity. She also intends also to channel some of billions of euros (dollars) that utility firms will earn from the extension into the renewables sector.

But her plans, which she hopes to pass into law by the end of the year, have revitalised the German anti-nuclear movement, which gained momentum in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986.

Tens of thousands of people demonstrated in Berlin against the extension on September 18, and protestors have warned of more to come, including in early November to try and stop a shipment of nuclear waste from France.

They argue that it is irresponsible to promote nuclear power while there is no permanent storage site for the radioactive waste produced, either in Germany or anywhere in the world.

There are also concerns that nuclear power stations are sitting-duck targets for terrorists, as well as worries about the safety of some the country's ageing plants.

The Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily on Tuesday cited an unpublished report commissioned by the environment ministry as listing around 80 potential safety risks at the Biblis B reactor in western Germany, one of the country's oldest.

The plant, which has been generating electricity since 1976, was due to be switched off in 2012 but under Merkel's plans will now stay operating until 2020, the paper said.

The opposition Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens, who were behind the original phase-out, have vowed to block the extension in the upper house of parliament, where Merkel's coalition lost its majority in May.

Merkel's government hopes to be able to circumvent the upper house with the legislation, however.

Around 300 people braved rain on Tuesday to protest the plans outside Merkel's chancellery in Berlin.

© 2010 AFP

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