Nuclear Phase Out Germany's New Government May Extend Reactor Lifetimes

For years, Germany has insisted it would shut down all its nuclear reactors by the early 2020s. But now that a re-elected Chancellor Angela Merkel has a new coalition partner, the nuclear lobby is hoping for extended reactor lifetimes and a cash windfall.

The Biblis nuclear power plant near Frankfurt. Merkel's new government could extend the lifetimes of some reactors in Germany.

The Biblis nuclear power plant near Frankfurt. Merkel's new government could extend the lifetimes of some reactors in Germany.

It never takes long for interest groups to pick up their phones after an election. This week, following Sunday general elections in Germany, it is the energy lobby that has managed to hit the headlines first.

"I think one should use (nuclear) facilities for as long as they are safe," Jürgen Grossmann, head of power company RWE, said on German public television station ARD on Tuesday morning. "Nuclear energy is a part of ... an energy mix. I think it is necessary to talk about extending the lifetimes of all reactors."

The demand hardly comes as a surprise. German energy companies have long voiced their opposition to a 2002 law, passed under former Social Democratic (SPD) Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his coalition partner, the Green Party, which put a moratorium on the construction of new atomic reactors and required all nuclear facilities in Germany to be shut down by the early 2020s. The SPD, as Merkel's junior coalition partner during the last four years, has seen to it that the nuclear phase-out policy has remained untouched.

'We Need Nuclear Energy'

But Chancellor Angela Merkel's re-election on Sunday, and the crowning of the Free Democrats as her new coalition partner, means that those wanting to phase out the phase out now have renewed hope. The FDP has long made it clear that it would be in favor of a return to nuclear energy. And in a post-election interview on ARD, Merkel indicated that she would be willing to revisit the issue.

"We need nuclear energy as a transition technology for a certain time," Merkel said. "I have to honestly say I don't think it makes sense to be forced into a position where we have to import nuclear energy from our neighbor France while losing those jobs here."

German public opinion, according to a poll released in the week prior to the election, is squarely in favor of the phase out. Sixty percent of the 1,000 people surveyed by Emnid said they were against extending the reactor lifetimes with 35 percent in favor. Just four years ago, a similar survey found 46 percent against with 43 percent in favor.

Still, both Merkel's Christian Democrats and the FDP have tried to sell longer reactor lifetimes as a way to both secure Germany's energy supply as the country continues trying to move toward alternative sources and as an easy way to raise extra cash. During the campaign, the two parties said that, were reactor lifetimes to be extended, energy companies would be forced to hand over up to 50 percent of the extra profits to the government.

New Reactors or Eventual Phase Out?

According to an evaluation conducted by the bank WestLB, the profits could be immense. RWE stands to earn an extra €5.8 billion ($8.46 billion) should reactor lifetimes be extended by eight years. E.on would rake in €8.6 billion ($12.6 billion).

Some within the FDP have even voiced a preference for new reactors to be built in Germany. Such a demand, though, is unlikely to gain much traction with Merkel herself insisting that she remains committed to an eventual phase out.

The energy companies on Tuesday said they were prepared for the negotiations that may be on the horizon. "Should such discussions arise," Wulf Bernotat, head of E.on, told the business daily Handelsblatt in an interview published on Tuesday, "then we will soon see a clear policy emerge."

cgh -- with wire reports


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