The World from Berlin Nuclear Reaction to Reactor Proposal

What to do about nuclear power? It is a question that has been dogging Germany for years. On Saturday, Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel proposed shutting down the country's older reactors, setting off a heated debate in the editorial pages.


Problems at the Krümmel reactor in July has kicked off a debate in Germany about what to do with the country's older nuclear power plants.
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Problems at the Krümmel reactor in July has kicked off a debate in Germany about what to do with the country's older nuclear power plants.

It seems hardly a week goes by these days without Germany fretting about nuclear power -- especially its decision to shut down all nuclear power plants in the country by 2021. German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel decided to get a head start on this week's version of the debate. In an interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung on Saturday, Gabriel proposed immediately shutting down the country's seven oldest reactors and allowing 10 newer ones to operate for longer than currently planned.

By Gabriel's reasoning, safety would increase -- particularly given the July problems at the Brünsbuttel and Krümmel reactors -- while the effect on the electricity supply would be minimal. "The risk of nuclear energy could thus be cut dramatically," Gabriel told the paper. "From an energy point of view, the amount of power we are talking about is meaningless."

Still, even if Gabriel is right about his safety-versus-energy equation, such a proposal is bound to raise hackles in Germany. The decision to shut down the country's nuclear reactors was made under former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a Social Democrat like Gabriel. The conservatives were not amused, but current Chancellor Angela Merkel's government stuck with the decision. Her government's survival, after all, depends on the SPD.

Recently, though, the conservatives have been trying to revisit the agreement and are insisting that, because nuclear reactors emit no CO2, it is the perfect green energy. Christian Democrat General Secretary Ronald Pofalla blasted Gabriel's proposal on Monday saying it "ignored current law."

German commentators likewise joined the fray on Monday.

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"Sigmar Gabriel does not have it easy. Although the environment minister has been trying hard to make ecological policy his trademark, he is perpetually stuck in the role of assistant. His boss has reserved the coalition laurel wreaths for herself. Chancellor Angela Merkel has been presenting herself for weeks as a kind of eco-Thatcher and has felt no need to argue with her environment minister. After all, it's clear to everyone that his role is to lay the groundwork for her initiatives. If Gabriel is now starting a debate about nuclear power, then it is likely because it is the only which allows him to separate himself from the green chancellor. The fact that he will not actually achieve anything is probably clear to him. … Gabriel's plan (to shut down old reactors sooner) would only have one chance -- namely if he convinced Merkel. But then it would also soon be called the 'Merkel plan.'"

Left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung on Monday looks at the two different types of reactors operating in Germany -- and points out that one technology is safer than the other.

"The safety of an atomic power plant doesn't depend solely on its age…. The proposal by Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel to cut the risk of atomic energy by shutting down some reactors earlier than planned -- and shifting run times from older to newer reactors -- is a good one. If the environment minister doesn't just consider the ages of reactors but also adds technological considerations as a criterion, then his proposal will be superb."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Sigmar Gabriel has touched the nuclear lobby's sore spot -- the safety of its older plants. The nuclear power plant operators have invested hundreds of millions of euros in increasing safety standards … But all they have achieved is a lower possibility of a serious accident. The high-risk nuclear technology can never be completely safe."

"In reality only the newest German reactors should be described as world class. The older models make the companies seem like used car salesmen, who try to present a car as in mint condition because all its parts have been rebuilt apart from the body and engine -- even though its speedometer reads 250,000 kilometers. From the point of view of the companies, this is rational behavior. The oldest nuclear plants are the ones making the most profit, they are written off but still produce cheap electricity that can be sold dear."

Conservative paper Die Welt elects to avoid the issue altogether and slam Gabriel for his own personal contributions to global warming -- a phenomenon the paper is fond of questioning.

"Gabriel's position on the issue of atomic energy begs the question: How seriously is Gabriel driven by concern for the climate relative to a personal desire to enhance his own profile? Especially when his behavior raises a number of doubts."

"The environment minister, of all people, lets himself be chauffeured around alone in his official jet more frequently than any other cabinet minister -- he even gets picked up occasionally from his house in Hanover -- and consistently avoids … the available alternative of rail transport."

"By doing so, Sigmar Gabriel takes another step closer to his great role model, Al Gore. The former US vice president and modern-day climate guru also numbers among the greatest "climate killers" of the US -- both at home and abroad -- as a result of his own personal, catastrophic energy balance."

-- Charles Hawley, 1:30 p.m. CET

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