Ausgabe 27/2008

Caught in the Reactor Trap German Party Politics Block Nuclear Consensus

The chances of Germany's grand coalition reaching a consensus on nuclear energy are dwindling. The conservative Christian Democrats want to keep existing nuclear power plants running longer, while the center-left Social Democrats insist on pushing through the phase-out plan.


German Chancellor Angela Merkel hasn't exactly been getting rave reviews from the German business community lately. Executives at corporations and industry groups gripe that the chancellor, who is head of the conservative Christian Democrats, has abandoned her program of reforms and is kowtowing to her coalition partners, the Social Democrats. They call her the "feel-good chancellor."

The Biblis nuclear power station.

The Biblis nuclear power station.

The captains of industry were, therefore, all the more pleasantly surprised when Merkel took up one of the corporate world's favorite issues at a recent meeting of the party's Economic Council. "I believe it is wrong to rush into shutting down our nuclear power plants," Merkel said to enthusiastic applause. "Whenever possible, we must reexamine the decision to abandon nuclear energy."

The reports of Merkel's latest shift had hardly been released before officials from both parties were presenting the subject as a hot campaign issue for the next federal election in 2009. CDU General Secretary Ronald Pofalla promptly defined nuclear energy as the "eco-energy of the CDU" and released an environmental position paper calling for Germany's nuclear power plants to remain in operation for longer than originally planned. The Social Democrats were just as prompt in opposing the conservative position. Members of the SPD parliamentary group said that apparently the CDU, and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, had finally mutated "into a nuclear sect."

While oil prices climb to record highs and climate protection is fast becoming a top priority for the government, the coalition parties in Berlin are launching a new campaign of fear over nuclear energy. The SPD is evoking the memory of Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island to stir up antipathy against what it calls an unpopular "monster technology."

The CDU/CSU has also taken up a familiar tune -- that without nuclear energy the lights will soon go out in Germany.

However, while party strategists are animated by the issue, some energy experts fear the worst. In light of the climate crisis, they insist that the German nuclear consensus is in urgent need of review. Instead, an emerging election campaign over reactors threatens to deepen the divisions within the coalition even further. "It will only make things more rigid," warns Stephan Kohler, the head of the German Energy Agency (DENA), an organization subsidized by the federal government.

Of course, at the party headquarters such warnings by experts are filed under the category of "Unwanted Objections." The prospect of using the highly emotional nuclear issue to score points in the upcoming election campaign is far too tempting.

Nuclear Countdown Operational life and anticipated remaining period of operation* of Germany's nuclear power plants * according to the plan, agreed to under Gerhard Schröder's government, to phase out nuclear power

Nuclear Countdown Operational life and anticipated remaining period of operation* of Germany's nuclear power plants * according to the plan, agreed to under Gerhard Schröder's government, to phase out nuclear power

The CDU/CSU, for its part, hopes to back the SPD into a corner in the new debate over reactors. So far, the Social Democrats have lacked a convincing answer to the question of where Germany is supposed to get its electricity after the nuclear power plants are shut down. From coal power plants, which emit large amounts of climate-harming CO2 into the atmosphere? CDU leaders are convinced that the SPD is vulnerable on this issue.

With an unmistakable "Yes" to nuclear energy, Merkel also hopes to regain the aura of economic competency she lost with her many questionable compromises in other areas. Those who support inexpensively produced nuclear power are now attempting to draw a sharp distinction between themselves and the SPD's presumed candidate for chancellor, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. In a past position as head of the Federal Chancellery, Steinmeier worked out the nuclear phase-out resolution together with then Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin, a Green Party member.

Oddly enough, the prospect of a new nuclear power campaign doesn't seem to trouble the Social Democrats in the least. On the contrary, the SPD sees the conflict as a welcome opportunity to energize its supporters.

According to recent internal surveys conducted at the party's Berlin headquarters, the overwhelming majority of SPD members strongly advocate a nuclear phase-out. Among SPD members, the nuclear phase-out ranks second, behind "social justice," on a scale rating the most important issues.


© DER SPIEGEL 27/2008
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