German nuclear phase-out debate heats up

Government prepares new legislation as industry warns of increased CO2 emissions

Tension is rising as the German government firms up its plan to begin phasing out nuclear energy, which currently generates 30% of the country's power. In an effort to dilute hostility between electricity utilities and outspoken environment minister Jürgen Trittin, "energy consensus" talks due to begin in January will now be chaired by chancellor Gerhard Schröder. As both sides prepare for the show-down, a number of key areas of dispute are emerging.

The utilities are angry at the government's intention to propose amending the existing nuclear law before beginning the consensus talks. Mr Trittin wants to publish a proposal before Christmas. Their fears increased earlier this month when details of the still unpublished proposal were leaked to the press. They included plans to increase nuclear operators' insurance liability to DM5bn (Ecu2.6bn), ban the reprocessing of spent fuel elements, and oblige each operator to provide a safety report within one year. They also included removal of a clause pledging the "promotion" of nuclear power.

Today, the utilities hit back, releasing estimates on the effects of a phase-out on national air emissions levels. If all reactors were shut down by 2004, an extra 1.8m tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) would be emitted by 2030 due to substitution by coal and gas, they claim. According to a recent forecast by the German branch of oil firm Esso, Germany will not meet its domestic target of cutting CO2 emissions by 25% of 1990 levels by 2005 even without shutting down its nuclear reactors.

According to political commentators, the government is still far from unified over what exactly a nuclear phase-out would entail. In their coalition document, the leading government party the Social Democrats (SPD) and the smaller Green Party agreed to amend the nuclear law to create the political conditions for a phase-out (ENDS Daily 16 October). They also agreed that final storage rather than reprocessing should form the basis of nuclear waste management.

However, the government has not set a date for a phase-out. Nor is it clear whether it wants to cancel existing spent fuel reprocessing contracts or simply not re-new them. Environment minister Trittin has repeatedly spoken in favour of abandoning existing contracts, whilst Mr Schröder recently stressed the importance of honouring international agreements (ENDS Daily 6 November).

The government plans to finalise these points during the coming 12 months of talks with the nuclear industry. The discussions are designed to enable agreement between the government and utilities over the phase-out concept. Mr Trittin, however, has stressed that if no agreement is reached, the government will still go ahead and introduce a second new law laying down the mechanics of the phase-out.

Follow Up:
German environment ministry, tel: +49 228 3050.

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