It was only last autumn that Chancellor Angela Merkel pushed through an extension of nuclear reactor lifetimes in Germany. Ten years after the government of her predecessor Gerhard Schröder mandated the phase out of nuclear power in the country by 2022, Merkel's center-right government agreed to delay pulling the atomic plug by a dozen years. Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, a member of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), called the lifetime extension a vital "bridge" to the time when renewable energies could take over.
That, of course, was well before the devastating earthquake and resulting tsunami in Japan.
Now, with bad news from the Japanese nuclear facility in Fukushima continuing to mount, an increasing number of politicians from within Merkel's governing coalition appear to be rethinking their positions on nuclear power. Even the chancellor herself could be backing away from the lifespan extension.
The events in Japan, said Merkel spokesman Steffen Seibert on Monday, must give Germany pause. The country must look at "what can be learned" from the situation in Japan and what are the consequences of those lessons.
The website of Focus magazine reported that Merkel would announce later on Monday that she will suspend the extension of nuclear reactor lifetimes pending a safety review in the wake of the Fukushima accident. Merkel and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle are set to deliver a statement on Monday afternoon.
Developments on Monday seem certain to make it difficult for Merkel to stick to her plan to extend reactor lifespans. Early Monday, a hydrogen explosion struck reactor block 3 at the Fukushima 1 facility. The blast was similar to the one which decimated the protective shell around reactor block 1 on Saturday. Later on Monday, it was announced that fuel rods in reactor 2 were exposed as a result of the failure of the block's cooling system there. Similar incidents preceded the explosions in blocks 1 and 3.
Following the explosion on Saturday, Merkel announced that security at all nuclear facilities in Germany would once again be evaluated. "The events in Japan are a watershed for the world," she said. "Germany cannot simply go back to business as usual."
Several nuclear industry lobbyists noted over the weekend that natural disasters of the kind which struck Japan on Friday are extremely unlikely in Germany, a country not known for strong earthquakes. Nevertheless, Germans have been exceedingly wary of nuclear power since the 1986 meltdown and explosion of the reactor in Chernobyl. As a result, nuclear energy seems certain to become a central campaign issue as voters in several German states prepare to cast their ballots in important regional elections this year. The center-left Social Democrats and the Green Party stand to be the primary beneficiaries.
On Monday, an increasing number of voices from Germany's center-right political camp seemed to be distancing themselves from nuclear power. Westerwelle, who is also Merkel's vice chancellor and head of the Free Democrats -- her junior coalition partners -- said "we need a new analysis of the risks." He added that security is more important that economic interests and did not exclude the possibility that last fall's resolution to extend reactor lifespans could be reversed.
Westerwelle's party colleague, Economics Minister Rainer Brüderle, demanded an accelerated changeover to renewable energies and Environment Minister Röttgen said that the risks posed by Germany's aging reactors must be re-examined. On Saturday, Röttgen said that "fundamental questions regarding risk control" must be scrutinized anew.
'Not Optimally Secured'
European Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger also entered the fray on Monday, telling German radio that, when it comes to the shutting down of German nuclear facilities, "I wouldn't exclude any possibility." Oettinger, a member of Merkel's CDU, added "the incident has changed the world and much of what we, as an industrialized society, once thought was safe and controllable has now been called into question."
Oettinger was once governor of Baden-Württemberg, the southern German state where voters are to go to the polls in important regional elections on March 27. The CDU is in danger of losing control of the state for the first time since the early 1950s and the events in Japan are likely to help the center-left Social Democrats and the Green Party, both of which have long been extremely skeptical of nuclear power.
Indeed, even CDU-member Stefan Mappus, current governor of Baden-Württemberg and a strong supporter of nuclear energy, saw fit to back away from atomic power on Monday. "Should a new, unknown source of danger become apparent, then all necessary consequences would have to be taken, without exception," he said.
The center-right Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's CDU, likewise seems to be backing away from nuclear energy. "Japan changes everything," Markus Söder, environment minister in the state of Bavaria, told the Munich-based daily Süddeutsche Zeitung. He said that there is, for the moment, "no serious alternative." But he added that the shift to renewable energies must "take place more quickly than planned."
Söder's party colleague Josef Göppel, an expert for environmental policy within the CSU, demanded that Merkel rethink her government's reversal of the nuclear phase-out. "There are certain types of reactors in Germany which ... are not optimally secured," he said. "Such things must be openly discussed and I believe they will lead to the result that several reactors will be taken offline in accordance with (Schröder's phase-out plan)."