The World from Berlin Merkel's Energy Plan Is 'A Gift to the Nuclear Industry'

Germany's nuclear plants were due to be phased out by 2021. Now Chancellor Merkel has given them a 12-year reprieve as part of a transition to a low-emissions future. German commentators are critical of the government's new energy strategy, calling it a victory for the nuclear lobby.

The German government wants to change the country's energy policy -- and its future direction -- by softening a nuclear phase-out law.

The German government wants to change the country's energy policy -- and its future direction -- by softening a nuclear phase-out law.

After months of debate, the German government announced a controversial new policy on Sunday evening to extend the lifespans of the nation's nuclear power plants. They were scheduled to go offline -- under a phase-out law forged under former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder -- by 2021 at the latest. Now, however, each viable reactor will run for an average of 12 years beyond its current decommissioning date, with newer reactors staying online for an additional 14 years.

Environmentalists have called the new policy a gift to the nuclear lobby. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has tried to soften the blow by arguing that nuclear energy plays an essential role as a "bridge" technology in a national transition from conventional fuels to renewable energies by the mid-21st century.

Merkel's plan -- developed by her coalition government of conservative Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) -- promises significant government subsidies for wind, solar and biomass technologies, and it sets ambitious goals for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. The plan aims for an 80 percent slash in emissions by 2050.

The fact that nuclear energy is almost CO2-free may help achieve that goal, but the government also wants Germans to become more energy efficient. By supporting a national program of renovating German buildings it hopes to slash energy demand over the next four decades by 40 percent.

Memories of Chernobyl

Environmentalists, though, are not happy about nuclear plants' operating lives being extended, because the problem of the long-term storage of nuclear waste has not been solved in Germany. The dangers of nuclear energy also linger in Germans' memories: A movement to shut down the nation's nuclear plants gained momentum in the 1980s after nuclear fallout from the Chernobyl disaster poisoned soil in Western Europe.

The law to phase out nuclear power, passed in 2000 by Gerhard Schröder's coalition of Greens and Social Democrats, was considered a triumph of the anti-nuclear movement. Veterans of that movement reacted to Merkel's new policy on Monday with disgust. On Tuesday, Germany's main newspapers have come out swinging.

The left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:

"It's no surprise that the government has made good on its long-promised, multi-billion-euro gift to the nuclear industry. But after such a long debate within the government, it is a surprise that the power companies have received their full wishlist. And the audacity with which the government has tried to sell its full genuflection to the nuclear lobby as a 'revolution' and 'the most challenging energy vision in the world' is a little hard to take."

"Nuclear power lowers the price of energy, protects the climate and serves as a bridge for renewable energy: Friends of the nuclear lobby in the CDU and FDP obviously think that long-dead arguments will be true again if someone repeats them often enough -- or at least that some segment of the population will take them seriously. The way the government bends the facts and ignores reality borders on an insult to common sense."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"Everyone wants energy to be clean, secure and cheap. But we can't have it all at once; we have to decide. Clean energy from solar cells costs more, right now, than energy from power plants. Customers pay the higher prices as well as the government subsidies."

"Boosting renewable energy, coupled with a renovation of German buildings, is the heart of Merkel's new energy vision. In this respect the government's policies will pursue something more than an ambitious goal: By 2050, CO2 emissions are meant to sink by four-fifths. No other industrial nation has such an ambition. By then the German economy will consume only half as much energy; it will no longer be dependent on oil and gas; four-fifths of its energy will be derived from renewable energies and up to one-third will be imported (including nuclear energy)."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung argues:

"Nuclear power plants for new green energy? That's like saying new autobahns should be celebrated as a breakthrough for cyclists. In other words, pure nonsense."

"On the surface, Merkel, her ministers and the party chiefs were only negotiating about the length of the extensions to plants' operating lives. But they weren't looking for an ideal duration for an atomic-to-renewable transition; they found a face-saving, political solution for all the players involved. The future of renewable energy, moreover, will be decided not by the level of subsidies handed over by the German government but by whether wind parks and biomass plants look worth investing in. Their prospects did not improve on Sunday night."

"From now until far into the new millennium, green energies will have to compete with nuclear power. ... In northern Germany, the closure of older reactors would have opened new prospects for offshore wind farms. And now? The nuclear plant at Brunsbüttel, which has already suffered a near-meltdown, can run until almost 2020, and its younger brother near Hamburg, called Krümmel, will run till 2030. A breakthrough for green energy? Laughable."

The left-wing Berliner Zeitung writes:

"No one can accuse the chancellor of hiding the fact that she was in favor of extending the lifespans of nuclear plants. Merkel's heart doesn't beat for renewable energy. It beats for the climate … But we must accuse the chancellor of underestimating the importance of renewable energies for the present day. They're not just weekend hobbies for ecological optimists. They can no longer be ignored as a factor for the economy or for growth."

"Merkel should not have allowed plant operating lives to be extended while demanding so little -- actually nothing -- from the nuclear industry. She should not have been allowed to say 'Yes' to such gigantic profit margins without a significant quid pro quo. With this new policy she's exacerbated the feelings of unfairness that have grown up among Germans lately, feelings that have overflowed in a number of different ways: in citizen protests against a gigantic new train station in Stuttgart, in general agreement with Thilo Sarrazin's complaints about the failure of Muslim integration, in resistance to school reforms, and -- as we will see in the future -- in the outrage against more nuclear waste and the still-unresolved question of where to put it."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"Just extending the lifespans of nuclear plants is not an energy vision. The German government will now have to pay attention to more pressing questions. A lasting system will need far better efficiency (than the current one), and renewable energies will have to be massively expanded. But it's easier to announce these demands than to see them through."

"Renewable energies will replace fossil fuels only as easily as they can be integrated into the current power grid. Without subsidies, they will fail for lack of investment. But the attractions of switching over (from one fuel to another) are still too weak for private investors. If Europe wants a cost-efficient energy supply, it must drive the transformation with subsidies. And it's a job for all of Europe."

The conservative Die Welt argues:

"It's a great exaggeration to accuse the Merkel government of trading in pork-barrel politics for the nuclear industry's profit. You could just as easily argue that they've followed pork-barrel policies for the powerful wind and solar lobbies. Those lobbies, after all, thrive on multi-billion-euro subsidies, which consumers pay for in higher energy prices -- while billions can be skimmed from the profits of nuclear power."

"What's more decisive is that the term extensions were vital to secure an energy supply for Germany in the coming decades. Even if the renewable-energy lobby flexes its muscles, it can't replace even the basic load for the national power grid. Shutting down (the nuclear industry) would have been a highly hazardous experiment with energy consumers."

"Extending the lifespans of nuclear plants was an act of reason. And it will meet with broad acceptance."



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