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SPIEGEL Interview with Energy Commissioner Oettinger: 'Fukushima Has Made Me Start to Doubt'

Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger used to be a firm supporter of nuclear energy. But now he's not so sure. SPIEGEL spoke with Oettinger about Chancellor Angela Merkel's about-face on nuclear energy, what it means for the European energy supply and whether other EU countries will follow suit.

A map showing nuclear power plants in Europe used during an anti-nuclear power protest in Madrid in late March. Zoom
AFP

A map showing nuclear power plants in Europe used during an anti-nuclear power protest in Madrid in late March.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Oettinger, can you tell us who said: "It has to be possible to build a new generation of nuclear power plants"?

Günther Oettinger: That could have been me.

SPIEGEL: That's right. At the time, you were floor leader for the center-right Christian Democrats in the state of Baden-Württemberg. Would you like to amend that statement now?

Oettinger: Absolutely not. It's very well possible that new nuclear power plants will be built -- not in Germany, but in other countries. I accept the moratorium and the probable phase-out in Germany. But I also observe other countries -- both outside of Europe and within the European Union -- investing in R&D for atomic energy. Look at France and Great Britain: These major member states are working hard to build the next generation of nuclear power plants.

SPIEGEL: Two years ago, when you were still the governor of Baden-Württemberg, you fought to revoke what you called the "ideologically-driven lifespan limit" passed in 2002 by Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. But was it not German conservatives who pursued an ideological path -- one in favor of atomic energy?

Oettinger: In general, energy policies in Germany are too driven by ideology. I don't know of any other country in the EU where debates about power generation are so contentious. With the exception of the Greens, all parties long defended the use of nuclear energy. The consequence of injecting ideology into the debate has been that we in the CDU have seen atomic energy in too positive a light. That I'll admit.

SPIEGEL: Following the initial reports from Japan, you said the situation was "in God's hands." How much has the unfolding disaster at the Fukushima nuclear facility shaken your faith in the safety of atomic energy?

Oettinger: When Chernobyl happened, we in the West were comforted by the fact that it was the result of outdated Soviet technology and human error. But I have nothing but respect for Japan's abilities when it comes to industry and technology. That's why Fukushima has been such a turning point for me. It has made me start to doubt. If the Japanese cannot master this technology, then nuclear energy conceals risks that I didn't see before.

SPIEGEL: The Fukushima disaster has led to plutonium seeping into the earth, radioactivity in the ocean and the potential evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people. How big is the threat to Europe?

Oettinger: We feel that the Japanese government is doing everything it can to limit the damage. Each day, there are one or two positive reports -- and then more setbacks. There is some hope that the effects can be limited to the region, as bad as that is for the people living near the stricken plant. But you can't rule out the possibility that the radius will expand.

SPIEGEL: Given the severity, shouldn't all of Europe bid adieu to atomic energy as soon as possible?

Oettinger: Article 194 of the Lisbon Treaty gives the European Union extensive powers to set energy-related laws. But there is one exception: Member states are responsible for determining their own energy mix. We in the Commission are focused on the issue of safety. So I have high expectations for the stress tests mandated by the member states in the European Council.

SPIEGEL: The agreement reached at the recent European Union summit didn't go beyond a memorandum of understanding. The crucial issue, though, is whether EU member states can agree on the highest uniform safety standards.

Oettinger: I'm very satisfied with the result, and the same incidentally holds true for the chancellor. When she arrived at the summit, it still was still far from certain that there would be common stress tests. All member states -- both those with and without nuclear energy -- accept that we will apply the highest standards in defining the safety criteria. We are currently negotiating the criteria with the atomic supervision authorities of individual member states.

SPIEGEL: What exactly will these tests look for?

Oettinger: We want to design the stress tests based on the concrete causes of the Fukushima catastrophe. The cooling systems failed because the power supply and the emergency back-up power units gave out. We want to test how safe the cooling system is and how staggered the various emergency electrical circuits are in the event of an earthquake or flood. We will also run simulations of a terrorist attack with an airplane and of a cyber attack on the computer system.

SPIEGEL: If the stress tests are carried out by the nuclear supervisory authorities of the individual states, their governments may be able to influence the results.

Oettinger: We want multinational teams to conduct the stress tests. We are also fighting for the European Commission to have significant influence because the results only attain their full authority when they can be compared.

SPIEGEL: Still, it's not enough to have the governments of the EU's 27 member states agree on uniform criteria for the stress tests. Afterwards, a government could still say, for example, that it isn't going to fortify the outer hull of a power plant enough to withstand a plane crash because it considers the risk too small.

Oettinger: In the end, there always remains a degree of risk that you can reduce through retrofitting and investments. But you can never completely eliminate it. Either you accept this residual risk -- or you shut it down.

SPIEGEL: How likely do you think it is that any nuclear power plants will be taken off-line if they fail the stress tests?

Oettinger: If we can't imagine shutting down certain nuclear power plants, we can just forget about the stress test right now. With 143 nuclear power plants in the EU, I wouldn't venture to predict that all will pass. If we apply the highest safety standards, no country can rule out from the get-go that it may have to retrofit or shut down its power plants.

SPIEGEL: If Germany permanently shuts down the seven oldest nuclear power plants it has taken off-line pending the results of the stress tests, will it lead to bottlenecks in Europe's energy supply?

Oettinger: At the moment, there are some concerns in Belgium because turning off the seven German power plants has made it hard to control the grid. But when it comes to the greater European energy supply, these seven nuclear power plants aren't crucial. They make up about 8 percent of Germany's energy market and just under 2 percent of Europe's. Still, the German moratorium will place a greater burden on coal and natural gas for some time.

SPIEGEL: In the Environment Ministry in Berlin, which also handles nuclear safety, there are plans to take the rest of Germany's nuclear power plants off-line by 2017. How would that affect Europe's energy supply?

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lux44@hot.ee 04/05/2011
> A map showing nuclear power plants in Europe used > during an anti-nuclear power protest in Madrid in late March. This map is missing at least 3 powerplants: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leningrad_Nuclear_Power_Plant; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loviisa_Nuclear_Power_Plant; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaliningrad_Nuclear_Power_Plant (under construction). Pro-green (anti-nuclear) movement does not gain credibility in my eyes..
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About Günther Oettinger
Ezequiel Scagnetti / Fotogloria / DER SPIEGEL
Günther Oettinger has been the European Commissioner for Energy in Brussels since February 2011. He is a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union and was the governor of the economically prosperous southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg prior to his European Union appointment. Both he and his party were advocates of nuclear power prior to the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan.

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