Fighting the Nuclear Shutdown German Reactor Operators Weigh Legal Action

Following the center-right election debacle in state votes on Sunday, Chancellor Angela Merkel's government is moving to make the temporary shutdown of seven aging nuclear reactors permanent. But she may encounter stiff resistance from plant operators.

Germany's temporary reactor shutdowns may soon become permanent. Here, a thermal camera image of the Biblis nuclear power plant.

Germany's temporary reactor shutdowns may soon become permanent. Here, a thermal camera image of the Biblis nuclear power plant.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's announcement came quickly. Just days after the massive earthquake and resulting tsunami crippled several nuclear reactors at the Fukushima facility in northeastern Japan, she announced an immediate, three-month shutdown of Germany's oldest reactors pending strict safety checks.

"If in a highly developed country like Japan, a country with high safety standards and safety requirements, nuclear consequences from an earthquake and a tsunami can't be prevented," she said, "this has consequences for the whole world, it has consequences for Europe and it has consequences for us in Germany."

Increasingly, it looks as though the temporary shutdown may become permanent. Several center-right German politicians, including Merkel herself on Monday, have indicated a profound change of heart when it comes to nuclear power. And on Tuesday, her coalition partners in Berlin, the business-friendly (and formerly atomic energy-friendly) Free Democrats (FDP) said they hoped that eight German reactors would be permanently taken offline.

But the schedule for such a shutdown may be up to the courts to decide. According to information obtained by SPIEGEL, German energy giants RWE and E.on are looking into legal measures to block any permanent order.

Deadline Approaching

RWE lawyers say stock ownership laws leave them little option but to file for damages, according to SPIEGEL's information. The deadline for complaints is approaching; they must be filed with authorities by the second week in April.

Politically, however, things appear to be moving more quickly. "My view of nuclear energy has been changed by events in Japan," Merkel said on Monday. "We simply cannot go back to business as usual."

On Tuesday, FDP General Secretary Christian Lindner said his party was in favor of making the temporary shutdown -- of Germany's seven reactors built prior to 1980 -- permanent. The party would also like to see the problem-plagued Krümmel reactor, which went into operation in 1984, taken permanently offline. Germany would then be left with nine functioning reactors.

Even Horst Seehofer, the head of the Christian Democrats -- the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) -- has distanced himself from nuclear power in recent days. "People are going to watch closely to see if actions now follow our words," he said at a party meeting on Monday.

'We Have Understood'

While concern over the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima fueled Merkel's shutdown order two weeks ago, this week's political flight from atomic energy is the direct result of Sunday elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate. In both states, the environmentalist -- and anti-nuclear -- Green Party made large gains. By contrast, the CDU and FDP, which pushed through an extension of reactor lifespans last autumn, did poorly.

"That was a vote over the future of atomic energy," said FDP leader Guido Westerwelle, who is also Germany's foreign minister, in a standard interpretation of the election results. "We have understood."

Merkel's government in Berlin is currently rushing to come up with a long-term energy plan that relies less on nuclear energy. And talks have begun between state governments and the four companies in Germany which operate nuclear plants: Vatenfall, E.on, RWE and EnBW.

The negotiations promise to be difficult. Legal action could slow the process even further. But this week, the results desired in Berlin have become increasingly clear. "Now, it is time to show," said Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, "that we can quickly extract ourselves from reliance on nuclear energy."

cgh -- with wire reports


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