The World from Berlin: What Sweden's Nuclear About-Face Means for Germany

Sweden's government announced on Thursday it was reversing its pledge to phase out nuclear energy. The decision isolates Germany in Europe -- and commentators say it is high time for Berlin to take a new look at nuclear energy here too.

In 1980, Sweden was on the vanguard. In that year, a referendum passed calling for a ban on the construction of new nuclear reactors in the country and the ultimate phase out of existing reactors. It was a model that was eventually emulated by Germany and seen as the way of the future.

Nuclear reactors in Germany, like here at Biblis, are scheduled for phase-out.
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Nuclear reactors in Germany, like here at Biblis, are scheduled for phase-out.

On Thursday, the country once again took a step into the future -- by abandoning the ban on new nuclear power plants. Stockholm said the move was necessary to avoid energy sources that produce vast quantities of greenhouse gases. While Sweden has been a leader in developing alternative energy sources, they still have not done enough to completely replace nuclear power, which supplies half the country's energy.

The new proposal, presented by the country's center-right coalition, calls for the construction of new reactors as the old ones are taken out of service. Parliament will vote on the bill on March 17. The package also calls for the expansion of wind power and for a 40 percent cut to greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 relative to 1990 levels.

The decision has angered the Swedish opposition as well as environmentalists around the world. "To rely on nuclear power to reduce CO2 emissions," Greenpeace spokeswoman Martina Kruger said, "is like smoking to lose weight. It's not a good idea."

Poll on Nuclear Energy in Germany
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Poll on Nuclear Energy in Germany

Sweden's decision means that Germany is the only country in Europe still intent on phasing out nuclear energy. The government of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder passed the phase-out law in 2000 and the last reactor is set to go off line in 13 years. But despite a decade of programs meant to promote wind, solar and biomass energy, alternative sources made up just 14 percent of the country's supply as of last summer. Much of the rest of Germany's power comes from coal-fired power plants, hardly an appetizing alternative amid accelerating global warming.

When putting together her government in 2005, Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed not to revisit the phase-out. There are many among her Christian Democrats, though, who would like to see Germany abandon the phase out. CDU General Secretary Ronald Pofalla told the Süddeutsche Zeitung on Thursday that the Swedish decision "is a clear signal that nuclear energy continues to be a necessary component of a broadly diversified energy mix." He stressed, however, that his party is not backing the construction of new nuclear power plants but, rather, an extension in the period of operation for already existing reactors.

The issue is almost certain to become important in the campaign as Germany gears up for general elections in September. Merkel's primary opponents, from the Social Democrats, remain largely in favor of getting rid of nuclear energy.

Michael Müller, an influential member of the SPD and a deputy in the Federal Environment Ministry, told the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung that Sweden's government was pursuing "completely short-sighted policies." Müller also warned the CDU against retreating from the timetable for the phase-out of nuclear energy after September's federal elections. "If the CDU does that," Müller said, "it will lead to massive arguments in society, and old conflicts about risks and alternatives will break out once again."

Based on their politics, German commentators are either relieved or horrified at Sweden's decision. But all of them agree that the announcement will have repercussions on the debate in Germany.

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"Sweden was the role model for the German Social Democrats when they agreed to demand a phase-out of nuclear energy at their 1986 party convention in Nuremburg. …"

Nuclear reactors around the world.
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Nuclear reactors around the world.

"Nowadays, it is getting harder and harder for the SPD to make its climate-protection policies seem plausible. On the one hand, it has no problem with building new coal-fired power plants that will pollute the atmosphere with carbon dioxide for decades to come and, on the other hand, it wants to shut down nuclear power plants that bring about annual reductions of 150 million tons of CO2 emissions -- as much is emitted by all of Germany's vehicle traffic. Why? Because they're too dangerous? Let's not forget that coal power isn't exactly unharmful in that it can alter the climate and kills thousands of miners every year. And not just in Germany. The Greens like to fantasize that Germany can somehow 'opt out' of coal and nuclear energy at the same time. It would be smarter for the SPD to keep Sweden as its role model -- and preferably with less hesitation than in 1986."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"The nuclear power lobby in Europe will now claim Sweden accepted that there is no going forward without nuclear energy. And the Swedish government's decision will also help these lobbyists in their attempts to convince others to follow suit. …"

"For the opponents of nuclear energy, particularly in Germany, this is a bitter setback. For years, the movement in Sweden had been praised as a pioneer; and now that country will be headed in the completely opposite direction. Those critical of nuclear energy will now have to work all the harder to explain the failure of the phase-out. Indeed, conditions for a nuclear-free energy supply were significantly more favorable in Sweden than in many other European countries … (with) a number of possibilities for generating electricity through alternative means."

"So, why would the Swedes prefer not to abandon their reactors now? Because they never seriously tried to. Even if there was a lot of rather loud talk about getting rid of nuclear power, it was always still just talk. The decision was never really implemented, and Stockholm's 'new energy strategy' is really only of symbolic importance. It is not a great change in policy. And that is bad news, because energy policies are in immediate need of radical rethinking -- even in Sweden."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"Many German citizens look upon Sweden as a kind of 'better Germany.' … and that's why it will only be harder for the average German to digest the most recent announcement of the government in Stockholm."

"Although Germany is holding tight to its ambitious climate policies related to a nuclear phase-out, it has become isolated in Europe. Great Britain and France are planning to build new nuclear power plants, and countries like Poland and Italy are making efforts to embrace this type of energy. Now that Sweden has called it quits and used climate change to justify her decision, Berlin will begin to look like a party-pooper. …"

"The most recent energy crises have shown that the majorities against nuclear energy found in Germany's polls are not set in stone. The fact that the EU and Germany are pursuing ambitious climate aims guarantees that future German governments will be forced to grapple with the issue of nuclear energy, regardless of the makeup of the governing coalition."

"Even if the government succeeds in pressing ahead with renewable energies at a quicker pace than expected, the fact is that there is no way for Germany to get around the issue of extending the period in which the existing nuclear reactors are kept in service."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"The Swedish government's decision to try to repeal the legal ban on constructing new nuclear power plants is not heralding a renaissance for nuclear energy. But it does show that the red-green collation in Germany was well-advised when it set firm dates for the course of the country's nuclear phase-out. Although Sweden set the ambitious goal of shutting down its last reactor in 2010, there was still never any legally binding timetable. …"

"Sweden's anti-nuclear-energy movement must accept some of the blame for this. When it was decided by referendum in 1980 to pursue a nuclear phase-out, the movement thought its work was done. But, back then, Sweden's Social Democrats were always divided on the nuclear issue, and they continue to be so today. The vague specification that nuclear power plants would be put out of service once suitable replacements were found meant in reality that the phase-out could be delayed until hell freezes over. …"

"(Germany's) Social Democrats -- and the Greens, as well -- must now nail down how they are going to deal with the nuclear issue in the future. They have always had a 'swift' phase-out somewhere in their party platform, but over the years it has always seemed to slide down on the list of priorities."

-- Josh Ward; 2:00 p.m. CET

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