For months, a bitter debate has raged within German Chancellor Angela Merkel's government over plans to extend the lifespan of the country's nuclear power plants. In order to meet the country's climate change goals and energy supply needs, the government has argued it must delay a planned phase-out of nuclear energy.
Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), who all share power in the federal government, are united in their view that the planned phase-out of nuclear power in Germany approved in 2002 by then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the Green Party should be delayed. But so far there had been no agreement on exactly when the reactors should be shut down. Some argued that lifetimes should be extended for at least 14 years, whereas others, led by Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen (a member of the CDU), wanted a shorter extension of only four to eight years in order to increase pressure on industry and the government to develop renewable technologies.
On Sunday, however, it appeared the government had moved closer to a final decision. For the first time, Merkel stated numbers for the planned extension of the lifespan of nuclear plants in Germany. "Technically, 10 to 15 years are reasonable," she said in an interview with public television station ARD. Instead of phasing out all nuclear plants by 2022 as established in current law, the plants would remain online at least until 2032 and possibly until 2037.
For the government, it marks a major step towards passing an energy plan. Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who is the leader of the FDP, has also spoken out in favor of a span of 10 to 15 years. "It will be passed in this range," he told another public TV station, ZDF. Economics Minister Rainer Brüderle (also of the FDP) spoke over the weekend of an extension of "at least 12 years."
'Nuclear Power Is Desirable as a Bridging Technology'
On Friday, Merkel's cabinet obtained a report it had commissioned from three independent research institutes looking into several scenarios for German energy supplies in the future. Merkel said that an initial look at the scenarios showed that "nuclear power is desirable as a bridging technology." She said this would not only help to ensure energy supplies, but also to keep electricity prices stable and to achieve climate protection goals.
Sigmar Gabriel, who now heads the SPD, the party that approved the original phase-out, criticized the chancellor's decision to extend lifespans. He said Merkel's determination showed that she wasn't concerned "about a sustainable energy plan, but rather the hard-as-nails lobbying by the nuclear companies."
On Saturday, Gabriel even accused the chancellor of corruption. "The chancellor is selling off public safety by allowing ailing and old nuclear power plants to stay online longer and by taking money for it," he told the Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.
Responding in her ARD interview, Merkel said: "Mr. Gabriel should have considered his words better."
In a follow-up interview broadcast Monday on German public radio station Deutschlandfunk, Gabriel said: "A general lifespan extension is, according to my solid understanding, a violation of our law on nuclear power." Gabriel also pointed to the older reactors in Biblis, Krümmel, Neckarwestheim and Brunsbüttel (see graphic), "where we have had massive problems in recent years." "I cannot believe that the federal government is now making a commitment without even carrying out a safety analysis of old nuclear power plants," said Gabriel, who is the former German environment minister. He demanded that an independent report be prepared by the German safety inspection company TÜV or by international experts.
'Acting Against the Will of the People'
Meanwhile, Hannelore Kraft, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, dimissed the government's plans as the "politics of frustration against voters." Kraft told SPIEGEL ONLINE that the vast majority of Germans are opposed to extending the nuclear plants' lifespans. She also noted that the issue of the final storage depositories for nuclear waste still hasn't been addressed in the country. "The government is disregarding that and is instead bargaining with energy companies over who will pocket how much of the billions in profits," the SPD politician said. "Experience has shown that consumers will foot the bill through their electricity bills."
A poll released on Friday found that 56 percent of Germans oppose the extension of the nuclear power plants' lifespans.
Greenpeace also sharply criticized Merkel. The environmental organization accused the chancellor of basing her decision on manipulated reports that deliberately "led to the desired results," said Greenpeace energy expert Andree Böhling. He said that Merkel is acting "against the will of the people and exclusively in the interest of profits for four corporations and had thus made herself the corporate chancellor."
In her interview with ARD on Sunday, Markel said that Germany "would reach the age of renewable energies," but that it made sense to extend the lifespan of nuclear power plants on the way to the goal.
But Merkel is also attaching conditions to the extensions and she said that "safety would remain the utmost principle in nuclear energy," noting that the country is a world leader in safety standards.
More controversially, Merkel has said that she will create new rules on the extension of the nuclear power plants' lifespans without having to pass the legislation through Germany's upper legislative chamber, the Bundesrat, which represents the interest of the states and where her coalition no longer holds a majority. In the Bundesrat, the SPD and Greens have said they would oppose the government's plans. Several states have threatened to sue to stop Merkel's plans at Germany's Federal Constitutional Court.
Making Nuclear Plants Plane-Crash Safe
SPIEGEL is also reporting that Environment Minister Röttgen wants to issue orders for German nuclear power plants to be structurally reinforced so that they can be protected against passenger jet crashes of aircraft as large as an Airbus A320, a plane roughly the size of a Boeing 737. For many nuclear power plants, this would require an entirely new protective cement shell; for older plants, the investment might not be worthwhile. According to the SPIEGEL report, regulatory officials believe the costs of upgrading a plant will be around €1 billion ($1.27 billion) per facility within 10 years.
Meanwhile, the German financial daily Handelsblatt is citing even higher figures for general safety investments at plants. Citing safety officials, the newspaper reported on Monday that Röttgen would like to require companies to invest €6.2 billion in safety improvements for an extension of four years, €20.3 billion for 12 years, €36.2 billion for 20 years and €49.8 billion for 28 years.
Executives at the four companies in Germany that operate nuclear power plants -- RWE, E.on, Vattenfall and EnBW -- had been hoping for a profits bonanza through Merkel's plan to extend lifespans. The expenses of building many of Germany's nuclear power plants have already been paid off and they are virtual cash-printing machines for the companies which operate them, generating profits as high as €1 million a day. But many had hoped for much longer operating times than Merkel is suggesting. And planned new taxes and safety investments threaten to dash those hopes.
They are irritated not only by costs for additional safety mesasures, but also by a planned nuclear fuel-rod tax that is expected to cost the energy companies a total of €2.3 billion per year. The tax is part of the German government's €80 billion ($102 billion) austerity program announced in June.
In September, Merkel's government wants to introduce an energy plan with the overarching goal of producing 80 percent of electricity and half of the entire energy supply from renewable sources by 2050. The plan would mean phasing out conventional energies like coal, oil and nuclear power.
The German government wants to reduce CO2 emissions in the country by 55 percent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. The target for 2040 is a reduction of 70 percent compared to 1990.