SPIEGEL: Minister Röttgen, your biggest enemy within the party, nuclear energy advocate Stefan Mappus, was just voted out of his position as governor of Baden-Württemberg. Was it difficult to hide your delight?
Röttgen: I'm not delighted about it.
SPIEGEL: What did the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) do wrong?
Röttgen: Certainly one mistake was that some had backed nuclear energy too strongly and almost religiously. Even before Fukushima, there was skepticism about nuclear energy, even among CDU supporters.
SPIEGEL: Last fall, during the debate about extending the lifespans of nuclear reactors in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel came down on the side of the nuclear proponents. Is she partly responsible for the poor showing in the election?
Röttgen: As a result of the moratorium and the quick and confident reaction to what happened in Japan, Angela Merkel ensured that the results for the CDU in the Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate elections were better than they would have been without this decision. She said herself that her position on nuclear energy had changed as a result of the disaster in Japan. The events in Fukushima marked a turning point for all of us. Now we jointly support phasing out nuclear energy as quickly as possible and phasing in renewable energies.
SPIEGEL: Could one not also read the CDU's poor showing in the state elections last month as being a consequence of your party's rapid policy change? Prior to Fukushima, you were the party of nuclear power. Now the phase-out can't happen quickly enough for the CDU.
Röttgen: No. If we hadn't drawn the right conclusions from Fukushima, the CDU would have ended up with 35 percent of the vote in the southwest, not 39. We were able to limit the damage.
SPIEGEL: In 2009, you wrote that an "insistence on the isolated national phase-out of nuclear energy is as ignorant as it is dangerous?" How do you expect German citizens to trust you now?
Röttgen: Because it's true that the administration of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (eds. note: Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-left predecessor, who led a coalition of the Social Democrats and the Greens) had clay feet when it came to its nuclear phase out plan. At the time, the SPD and the Greens made a deal with the energy industry in which they pledged not to tighten safety regulations. And they failed to develop a solid plan to switch to renewable sources of energy.
SPIEGEL: Now, Germany does indeed seem to be pursuing an isolated phase-out. While other countries are inspecting their reactors, Germany has already shut down seven. Economics Minister Rainer Brüderle has called the reaction "hysteria." Is he right?
Röttgen: No. I think the German debate is objective and rational. It isn't exactly a sign of hysteria to be asking ourselves whether acts of God could prove Germany, a high-tech country like Japan, wrong in its assumptions about safety.
SPIEGEL: Why is it that not even the Japanese have reacted as radically as Germany?
Röttgen: It probably has a lot to do with the fact that the country is acutely preoccupied with the triple-catastrophe of March 11, and that it hasn't had the time yet to embark on fundamental debates. I can imagine that a discussion similar to ours will begin there soon. China has just suspended its expansion plan for nuclear power plants, and other European countries are also reviewing their concepts.
SPIEGEL: France has no intention of changing anything.
Röttgen: That isn't quite true. In France, however, a radical energy shift is much more problematic than in Germany because the country is heavily dependent on nuclear energy. We plan to actively defend our position vis-à-vis other countries and introduce it into the discussion over European safety standards.
SPIEGEL: Before Fukushima, some in the CDU argued that a rapid nuclear phase-out would create an electricity shortfall in Germany and thus jeopardize supply.
Röttgen: I never said that. We have higher generating capacities than the country needs at peak use times. That's why it was possible to shut down the seven older reactors within the scope of the moratorium.
SPIEGEL: In addition to the older plants that have been shut down, a handful of newer nuclear power plants will soon be temporarily shut down for maintenance. A single major power outage would be enough to take your policy off the table. Are you at all concerned?
Röttgen: I'm convinced that the grid operators and energy utilities will manage to guarantee a consistent power supply.
SPIEGEL: Given the industry's current frustration with the government, there could be some top managers at German energy companies wishing for a blackout.
Röttgen: I think that's a dubious assumption.
SPIEGEL: Do you think it is possible that the eight plants that are now out of commission will ever be started up again?
Röttgen: I cannot and do not wish to anticipate the Reactor Safety Commission's conclusions or the social debate.
SPIEGEL: You have no opinion on the issue? Christian Social Union (CSU) Chairman Horst Seehofer and Free Democratic Party (FDP) General Secretary Christian Lindner have been more outspoken.
Röttgen: Yes, but I happen to be the federal minister in charge of reactor safety, and I will stick to the process I myself proposed. We now have the opportunity to, in the space of a few months, end the nuclear debate that has divided the country for decades.
SPIEGEL: To what extent do you want to include the SPD and the Greens in this process?
Röttgen: We should aim to find a joint approach with the SPD and the Greens -- in the best of cases, even a national energy consensus.
SPIEGEL: For the moment, however, you must first deal with the lawsuit filed last Friday by the utility RWE against the temporary shutdown of the Biblis A reactor. Is the moratorium on shaky legal ground?
Röttgen: From a legal point of view, the moratorium is based on the concept of risk prevention enshrined in the Atomic Energy Act.
SPIEGEL: You are referring to a paragraph that concerns imminent danger to life and limb. Did the tsunami make our nuclear power plants less safe?
Röttgen: No, but it refuted basic assumptions about safety in Japan. Cooling systems and backup generators were disabled, which the operators had not believed to be possible. It was an occurrence of so-called residual risk, which was practically ruled out. There is ample reason to examine whether the assumptions on which we have based our safety assessments to date are correct. This applies, for example, to protections against earthquakes, terrorist attacks and plane crashes.
SPIEGEL: The four German power companies which operate nuclear reactors are sure to demand compensation for the lost profits in the case of permanent shutdowns. What will that cost?
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