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Germany after the elections: Nuclear phaseout or not?

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(November 2, 1998) After it won the September 27 general elections, the Social Democratic Party decided to start coalition talks with the "Alliance 90/The Greens" which it need for a majority in the Bundestag, the German parliament. One of the main issues was the phaseout of nuclear energy, which had been an election promise of both parties. However, they both have different ideas about how it should be realized.
Meanwhile, anti-nuclear groups are afraid that the measures now being discussed would only weaken the anti-nuclear struggle without any concrete steps towards a nuclear-free Germany.

(501.5936) WISE Amsterdam - Ahead of the discussion in the coalition, eight members of both parties (three of the Greens, five of SPD) met in October for pre-negotiations on the phaseout. During these talks, it became obvious that the parties, although agreeing to shut down Germanyþs 19 nuclear power stations, do not agree on the question of the time frame in which the phaseout should be executed.
The Greens preferred a fast phaseout within five years without compensation payments to the nuclear plant operators. The SPD, especially Chancellor Schröder and his confidants, in contrast favored the phaseout in a period of 20-30 years, after consensus with the electricity utilities was reached about compensation and closure.
The compromise was the concept of SPD nuclear expert Jüttner and announced on October 15:
It is planned to change the atomic law within a time frame of 100 days. Changes would include:

  • Cancellation of the promotion of nuclear energy,
  • Establishment of a requirement for safety checks within one year,
  • Where there is a reasonable suspicion of danger, the requirement of proof by the operators,
  • Limitation of waste disposal to direct storage (i.e., no further reprocessing),
  • Cancellation of the Atomic Law changes of 1998 (see WISE NC 488.4846: Amendment to German atomic act: An act of kindness to the nuclear industry), with the exception of parts relating to compliance with European Union law, and
  • Raising the amount of insurance coverage (liability).

Parallel to these law changes the coalition would enter so- called consensus talks with the energy producers in an attempt to establish a new energy policy covering the end of atomic plants and the waste question. Such a consensus should be accomplished within one year. Compensation could be paid for loss of capacity to the utilities.

The next step would start after one year if no consensus has been reached. Then the government would make a new law establishing a time frame for ending the use of nuclear energy and regulation of waste disposal (without paying any compensation to the operators).

On the subject of radioactive waste disposal, the coalition parties agreed on the following:

  • The present waste disposal concept is defeated and no longer has any basis for continuance. A new national waste disposal plan should be produced.
  • A single storage site deep underground in a geologic formation would be sufficient for all kinds of waste.
  • The year 2030 is set as the goal for accomplishing the storage of highly radioactive waste.
  • There are doubts as to the use of salt-layer storage at Gorleben. Therefore, the experiments there would be interrupted, and further sites in various geological formations would be examined. After comparing all possibilities, a final decision would be made.
  • Further storage at Morsleben will be ended. Further work there would be confined to closing the site.
  • Basically, operators of nuclear plants must provide temporary storage for their own waste, in or near their own facility. Radioactive fuel rods may only be transported elsewhere when no approved temporary storage place exists and cannot be made available. Such temporary storage is not to be considered permanent.

SPD nuclear expert Wolfgang Jüttner announced on October 21 that the first nuclear power plant should be switched off in the year 2000. In an interview he said: "If we use the next four years properly, then no one is going to take seriously demands for a return to nuclear energy as a source of electricity." He further said that the first round of energy consensus talks with coalition partners and industry chiefs would start in November.

Reaction of the utilities
During their consensus talks, the government is to be confronted with the big enterprise Siemens, and, above all, with the operators of Germany's 19 nuclear power stations. The most powerful utility one is RWE with its nuclear plants Biblis A and B and Gundremmingen B and C. The giant from Essen located in the SPD ruled state of Northrhein Westfalia has an important say in the government due to its strong ties with Northrhein Westfalia's SPD. RWE chief Dietmar Kuhnt and his energy director, Roland Farnung, said they don't want to talk about a phaseout. The second large atomic concern is PreussenElectra. It is based in Hannover, the capital of Lower Saxony, the German state ruled by Schr”der for the last years. PreussenElektra's chief, Hans Dieter Harig, is threatening with enormous compensatory demands if politics will close nuclear reactors earlier than "economically sensible". PreussenElectra is running six nuclear power plants, including the reactors at State and Krümmel, which are heavily questioned because of safety failures.
But the ones who are defending nuclear energy most are working within the utility Bayernwerke. Its chief, Otto Majewski, is to demand compensatory claims of several hundreds of billion DM if the government plans to stop nuclear power plants immediately. Largest shareholder of Bayernwerke is the "free-state" of Bavaria (in special subjects Bavaria is more independent from the federal government than other states.)
In general, the utilities want to run their reactors at least 40 more years. They claim construction costs would be earned back in a few decades and then for the rest of the operation-time, the plants would serve to make money. The last nuclear power reactor constructed in Germany started operating almost 10 years ago.

Reaction of environmental groups
Environmentalists are not satisfied with the coalition's agreement either. Jochen Flasbarth, president of the German Naturschutzbund (one of the largest environmental organizations), declared that although he appreciated the basic agreement (the phaseout of nuclear power), the absence of a time frame is totally unacceptable. He says th SPD and the Greens should agree on a fixed date for closure of the last reactor. And this date should be within this first legislative period (which is four years). Even the Green spokesperson on nuclear issues for the last four years, Ursula Schönberger, called the coalition's agreement "disappointing". According to her, there might well be a new policy of this government towards the nuclear industry and this would certainly result in practical policy, but with this agreement, no atomic phaseout could be realized within the coming years.
During the October 17-18 weekend, a nationwide anti-nuclear conference took place in Berlin. There was hardly any difference in judging the coalition's agreement among the participants. Anti-nuclear initiatives fear that the decision would result in the continuation and modernization of nuclear power instead of a phaseout. They think the establishment of interim storages for radioactive waste in the vicinity to each nuclear power plant (as one of the measures agreed on), would enlarge the possibility of continued operation, because by doing so, owners could avoid the expensive and political hardly feasible atomic waste transports. And because a very large part of the movement is fixed on nuclear transports (the Castor transports to Gorleben, Ahaus) this would weaken it. The movement fears it would be reduced in numbers since many people from the Greens (which foundation was a result of the large anti-nuclear power movement of the 70s) would stop being active because the party is part of the government. "To see the traditional environmental party taking part in the government means for lots of people a sufficient reason not to be forced to be active any longer."
Especially since the waste-disposal agreement is very weak: it is incredible that the Greens think that underground deep geological disposal is a solid option and continue research in that direction. It is even more strange that it is now already agreed upon that the 2030 decision about storage of high-level waste would result in deep underground storage, without considering other options. And what if not all reactors are to be closed at the time a decision should be taken on final disposal?

A comment by the German newspaper "Die Tageszeitung" (die Taz, also a result of the 1970s movement) says the coalition's nuclear phaseout agreement could have been worse. (It is very striking that a "nuclear phaseout agreement could have been worse!"). But the newspaper is rather optimistic. The cancellation of the promotion of nuclear energy, which was in the German law, should not be disdained, it says. It will--even without concrete closure decisions--develop its own political power which would bar a new change towards nuclear power in the future. Additional measures, such as liability, would make atomic energy become more expensive and the operation of a reactor legally more uncertain. These are a solid part of the agreement and also means a contribution towards "nonreversibility" of the policy shift.
Schröder's offer to the nuclear industry to find a mutual phaseout agreement could be seen as rather naive or even faulty: you can't change a society into a vegetarian one in consensus with the butchers. But, in relation with this threatening scenario (one year of negotiations, then law changes fixing phaseout limits), it can become a strategy. And this is, still according to die Taz, what makes the present attempt different from older consensus rounds, which take place for years and years. In former times, the industry could always be sure that in case the talks failed, the government would rule in their (the industry`s) favor. But with the option of changing the law (if the talks fail during the first 12 months), the coalition places more weight on the talks.

Other countries are also affected by the coalition's agreement about nuclear power. These are especially France and the UK with their reprocessing plants. The coalition would outlaw reprocessing and decide to try to cancel existing reprocessing contracts (the limitation of waste disposal to direct storage).
Heinz Laing of Greenpeace Germany mentioned that as Germany was the largest foreign client of Cogema (the operator of la Hague) and the largest European client of BNFL (Sellafield), this decision would likely be the death knell of commercial nuclear reprocessing. The Post-2000 reprocessing contracts are worth some US$1.4 billion: US$750 million with BNFL and US$650 million with Sellafield. Given that the contracts are to be terminated due to a change in the German law, it is expected that the German utilities would not have to pay any penalties for terminating the contracts. This would be an important sign to reprocessing clients in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, Spain as well as the UK and France.
The British Atomic Energy Agency UKAEA does not seem to be impressed by the policy change in Germany. It does not assume that it would affect the present contracts with them. An official declared that the German decision would not have any influence on them; they will fulfill the contracts anyway.

The Greens in France (who have been fighting for a nuclear phaseout in France since their foundation) celebrated the German plans. Maybe it means the necessary push to let France get out nuclear power as well? During an October 23 interview, Dominique Voynet, the French minister for environment, said she wished France would take the same path as Germany. According to her, it would be surrealistic if France continues the French-German project to establish the future reactor EPR (European Pressure Reactor) on its own. About the reprocessing facility in La Hague, she went on to explain that the plant made 20% of its profit with Germany. A 1991 law says that radioactive waste which occurred during reprocessing should be sent back to Germany. But to avoid nuclear transports, Germany prefers France to keep the waste. Dominique Voynet opposes this idea. It would be an issue to negotiate about, she said during the interview.
Does she think that France, without saying it, is moving towards a nuclear phaseout? "I want to be clear," she answered. "There is no other country in the world where nuclear power has such a high percentage in the electricity production. France is steering towards another side, but slowly and with caution."
The French President Jaques Chirac has spoken out October 27, against the phase out of nuclear energy. According to him it is clean and cheap.


  • Die Tageszeitung, 12, 16, 17/18, 19 October 1998
  • Greenpeace press release, 16 October
  • press release Les Verts, 16 October
  • Reuters, 22 October
  • email from Bürgerinitiative Umweltschutz Lüchow, 23 October
  • La Libération, 23 October 1998

Contact: Edmund Meagher, Bürgerinitiative Umweltschutz
Drawehner Str. 3
23439 Lüchow, Germany.
Tel: +49-5841-4684; Fax: +49-5841-3197

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