Germany may be facing into a winter of discontent following the dismantling of a plan to phase out nuclear energy in just over a decade. On Thursday the center-right majority in Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, voted in favor of extending the lifespan of the country's 17 nuclear power plants, overturning a decision made 10 years ago by the then ruling Social Democrat-Green Party coalition to wean the country off atomic energy by around 2022.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats and their coalition partners, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), voted to allow the plants to remain online for an average of another 12 years, meaning the last plant will only close in 2035.
The decision has infuriated the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens, not only for overturning a key part of their legacy but also because of the government's attempt to bypass the Bundesrat, the country's second legislative chamber representing the 16 German states, where the government does not enjoy a majority.
Sigmar Gabriel, SPD leader and former environment minister, lashed out at the decision, accusing the government of creating advantages for the big four energy companies -- Eon, RWE, EnBW and Vattenvall. The Greens and the SPD warn that by continuing to rely on nuclear energy the development of renewable sources will be neglected.
On Thursday, the Greens signalled their protest at the new bill by arriving dressed in black and wearing small yellow crosses pinned to their lapels. As a fierce debate raged within the parliament, around 2,000 protestors formed a human chain around the Reichstag parliament building in central Berlin. And Greenpeace activists managed to scale the roof of the CDU party headquarters and unfurl a banner accusing the party of making policies for nuclear companies.
The opposition and some of the states are now considering appealing to the country's constitutional court to overturn the bill, arguing that it should have been brought before the Bundesrat. And around 50 municipally-controlled energy suppliers also intend to campaign against the new law. They are concerned that the refocus on nuclear energy could endanger investment in renewable energy programs.
However, Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, a member of Merkel's CDU, insists the nuclear-power lifetime extension is a vital "bridge" to renewable energy. The government points out that in return for the extension of the plants' lifespans the utility companies will have to pay an annual fuel tax and will have to contribute to a special fund to boost renewable energy production.
On Friday German editorialists weigh in on an issue which looks set to bitterly divide Germany in the coming months.
The center-right Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"The debate in the Bundestag was tough, and in some parts too tough, and also personally hurtful. The debate lasted several hours, not least because the Greens, with their mourning theatrics, used the parliament as the stage for their coming demonstrations. At the same time the opposition were right in their reproach of the government for pushing through the new law at an unreasonable speed."
"One may not agree with the decision about extending the lifespans of nuclear plants but one can no longer accuse the chancellor of sitting on the fence. And neither can one claim this time that the Conservatives and the FDP did not keep their election promises. Ahead of the election they said that they would extend the lifespans and now they have done so. Those who accuse the government of going against the will of the people are mistaken. That may be the findings of opinion polls but the results of last year's parliamentary elections don't support this stance. If there is really a majority against nuclear power, then they are to blame if they don't have a majority of seats in the Bundestag."
The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:
"The Christian Democrats once have again a distinct profile: The extension of the lifespan of nuclear plants is pure conservatism -- and it reveals a kind of acceptance that the means of production are concentrated in the hands of the dominant energy companies and not in the hands of the people. The Social Democrats and Greens had redistributed those means of production from above to below. Energy production was democratized."
"Every solar energy plant and every biomass plant undermines the power of the four big energy companies and with that weakens their standing in society. After a loss of 16 percent of the traditional companies' market share, the democratization of the energy business had to be stopped. So down with the funding for solar energy and up with the lifespans of nuclear plants seems to be the government's thinking."
The conservative Die Welt writes:
"The reproach from the opposition that the government is causing a rift in society by postponing the end of nuclear power can be turned around on the very people who make the claim: Those who act like the Greens did in parliament, with tricks to prolong the session, invective instead of arguments and using a kind of uniform in an undignified manner to make their point, turn a sober debate into an emotional issue."
"It is beginning to dawn on the government parties that gearing their policies toward the latest opinion polls yields few political results. The extension of the lifespans can show them that their own convictions are gaining weight."
"In this case, that conviction is that renewable energies cannot replace the traditional power plants as quickly as those who support pure sustainability would suggest."
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"A future free of CO2 would require importing at least 30 percent of our energy needs. And the SPD and Greens could not guarantee that this would just come from solar energy. It is exactly because of the reprieve for the nuclear power stations that the German government has the most ambitious climate protection program in the industrial world. The opposition, however, is talking about the 'annihilation' of renewable energies and threatens not only to go to the constitutional court -- which is legitimate -- but also to the streets. The foot soldiers are standing by at the ready."