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The World from Berlin: A 'Bizarre Situation' as Nuclear Operators Threaten Shutdown

Germany's leading energy producers have threatened to shut down some of their nuclear reactors if a fuel-rod tax goes into effect as planned. Yet the threat comes as the companies lobby for reactor lifetimes to be extended. Commentators on Monday are confused.

Germany's atomic energy producers have threatened to shut down some of their reactors. Here, a look inside a reactor in Bavaria. Zoom
AP

Germany's atomic energy producers have threatened to shut down some of their reactors. Here, a look inside a reactor in Bavaria.

Atomic energy, Germany's leading power companies have long insisted, is a vital part of the country's energy mix. If all nuclear reactors are shut down by the beginning of the next decade -- as mandated by a 2002 law passed by the government of then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder -- the country could face shortages, they claim.

It is an argument which makes the companies' recent threat that much more difficult to fathom. Over the weekend, SPIEGEL reported that negotiators from energy giants RWE, E.on, Vattenfall and EnBW have threatened to shut down several of their reactors should Chancellor Angela Merkel's government institute a planned "fuel-rod tax" and if Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen is able to set strict conditions for the extension of nuclear reactor lifespans.

Merkel's government has long been interested in extending the legally mandated lifespans of Germany's reactors, but Berlin also wants a share of the vast profits that would be the result of any such extension. A fuel-rod tax of the type under consideration would bring in some €2.3 billion each year -- an amount that the government has already factored into the vast austerity package announced earlier this summer.

Germany's leading power utilities, however, have insisted that the fuel-rod tax contravenes the nuclear phase-out agreement they reached with the Schröder administration. They have even threatened to take Berlin to court in Brussels should a tax be introduced. Instead of the tax, they have insisted on a fund for alternative energies, into which some of their excess profits could be paid. The two sides have made little progress in recent weeks.

Internally, the German government has referred to the new threat as "saber rattling." A spokeswoman for RWE told the website of the weekly paper Die Zeit that "we aren't threatening, we are negotiating."

German dailies take up the issue on their editorial pages on Monday.

The left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:

"What a bizarre situation. We have a group of companies that are involved in a business that is seen by a vast majority of the populace as more of an evil than a benefit -- and suddenly they are threatening to reduce their involvement in this business if politicians in Berlin don't do what they want. The operators of atomic reactors must be rather blind not to see the absurdity of their threat. It is a business that seems to be living in a made-up world in which they still believe they are doing humanity a favor -- despite all of the unanswered questions about the disposal of highly radioactive waste, about radiation risks and about the social problems surrounding uranium mining."

"Such maneuvers are the product of the unlimited desperation currently felt by the management of Germany's largest power companies. Suddenly, it seems that the companies are beginning to truly understand exactly what anti-atomic energy activists set in motion in the 1970s -- a movement that was spurred by the Chernobyl disaster in the 1980s and then politically anchored by the Schröder government. The atomic energy companies now realize that the desire for an atomic energy phase-out was not limited to a single government -- one which passes like the flu season -- but that German society itself wants the phase-out."

Conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"Now the energy firms are suddenly threatening with the immediate shutdown of nuclear reactors, should the German government insist on introducing the fuel-rod tax. It is such a bizarre threat that even supporters of the atomic energy industry will have been left speechless."

"First the energy companies warn that, should their reactors be phased out, electricity shortages could result. And now they are saying that nothing could be easier than taking a handful of reactors off line. With such a threat, the reactor operators are playing into the hands of Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, who wants to phase out nuclear power as quickly as possible in favor of emphasizing renewable energies."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Germany's energy firms risk losing their remaining credibility with the kind of threats they made over the weekend. It has become increasingly clear that in the ongoing argument (over the nuclear phase-out), the oft-used arguments relating to clean energy and energy security are not decisive. Rather, the companies and Germany's politicians are in reality negotiating over billions of euros worth of profits and tax revenues."

"The new, aggressive tactics of the energy companies could ultimately prove misguided. Threatening to phase out those reactors which, according to laws currently on the books, have to be phased out anyway, must appear to be a grotesque mistake even to those who support extended reactor lifespans. Should the companies continue to demonstrate such arrogance, they could ultimately end up empty-handed. If they want to defend their interests, they are dependent on the goodwill of Germany's politicians."

-- Charles Hawley

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