Japan nuclear danger puts Merkel under pressure

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Fears of a major nuclear disaster in Japan put German Chancellor Angela Merkel under pressure Monday over her decision to postpone by a decade the switch-off of all nuclear reactors in Europe's leading economy.

Less than two weeks before a key state election when nuclear power, which polls show a majority of Germans oppose, is set to figure highly, the opposition, environmentalists and the media piled pressure on the chancellor.

"We have to realise that the era not only of cheap oil but also of nuclear power is over," Sigmar Gabriel, head of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

He said that although Germany was not in an seismic zone like Japan, which is battling to control two overheating reactors after Friday's quake and tsunami knocked out cooling systems, Germany's reactors were still at risk.

"People are making the mistake a bit in the current debate of seeing the earthquake as the problem. The problem is the power cut," Gabriel said on ARD public television.

Germany decided in 2000 under the SPD and the ecologist Greens to switch off the last of its 17 nuclear power stations by 2020, but Merkel's government in 2010 postponed the exit until the mid-2030s, despite strong public unease.

On Saturday tens of thousands of protestors -- 60,000 according to organisers -- formed a 45-kilometre (28-mile) human chain between the Neckarwestheim power plant and the city of Stuttgart.

Both are in the southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, where on March 27 Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) face losing power after 58 years in charge.

This will be the most important of seven state elections this year.

Merkel said on Sunday that environment ministers from the German states where there are nuclear plants would on Tuesday discuss a possible review of safety standards.

"If a country like Japan with its high safety norms and safety standards can apparently not prevent the nuclear consequences of an earthquake and a tsunami, then the whole world ... can't just go back to business as usual," she said.

© 2011 AFP

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