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Angela's nights with the nuclear industry

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Bernd Frieboese

When the Christian Democrat party (Christlich Demokratische Union, CDU) and the Liberals (Freie Demokratische Partei, FDP) formed their coalition Government under Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) in September 2009, one of the projects they put into their coalition contract was the extension of the operation licenses of Germany's nuclear power plants.

Now almost a year has passed and the four big nuclear electricity corporations were getting nervous. The electricity production contingents according to the phase-out plan fixed in the 2002 nuclear energy law are running short for at least three of Germany's 17 reactors, and the operators are probably losing lots of money stretching their contingents by running reactors at minimum power or keeping them offline for extensive revisions and repairs. And of course, the minister of finances insisted on the introduction of the planned nuclear fuel tax!

So the government, under pressure to come forward with a plan, decided to hide behind science and commissioned a number of scenario studies from a group of research institutes. The scenarios included the development of the country's electricity supply in case of nuclear license extensions by between 4 and 28 years. Opposition parties and NGOs were astonished that there was no “business-as-usual” scenario with no license extensions, and outraged when they found out that one of the research institutes is partially financed by RWE, one of the four nuclear utilities.

The studies were delivered to the government on Friday, August 27, and the ministries claimed the right to read them before publishing them. Finally, in the first week of September, it turned out that even though the study scenarios were deliberately biased in favor of nuclear energy, for example by assuming very low future investments into nuclear safety and unrealistically low growth rates for renewable electricity, and by ignoring non-financial aspects of radioactivity, the results gave no good reason for license extensions.

Around this time, the federal ministry for environment, nature protection and reactor safety (Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz und Reaktorsicherheit, BMU), which is officially in charge of all issues around nuclear energy, played a relatively modest tune. Minister Dr. Norbert Roettgen (CDU) criticized the scenarios and demanded substantial safety upgrades as a condition for possible license extensions. According to him, a combined investment of EUR 6.2 billion was necessary to run each of the 17 reactors for 4 extra years, EUR 20.3 billion for 12 years, 36.2 billion for 20 years and 49.8 billion for 28 years.

And he kept reminding us and the other members of the government of a legal problem that any attempt to extend operation licenses will have to face: An amendment of the Nuclear Energy Law will have to be passed by both the Bundestag (the lower house of the German parliamentary system, representing the citizens of the Federation) and the Bundesrat (the upper house, representing the federal states). No problem in the Bundestag, as the two parties of the coalition hold a secure majority there. The Bundesrat, however, is dominated by anti-nuclear states governed by coalitions involving either the Social Democrats (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD) or the ecologist Green party (Buendnis90/Die Gruenen).

So Merkel's government declared that their amendment would be written very cleverly, denying the Bundesrat's participation in the process. The noisy arguments among legal experts are continuing, and any attempt by the coalition to bypass the Bundesrat will be challenged at the Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) by the non-nuclear states.

The next legal challenge for any license extension plan will be put to either German or European courts by the smaller and nuclear-free utilities, who will claim that any extension gives the four big nuclear corporations an unfair advantage in the electricity market. Now as Merkel was back from the summer break and being criticized because most of the big plans of her coalition so far had failed, she decided to speed up this nuclear plan and invite some ministers and the four nuclear utility managers to a meeting in the chancellor's office at noon on Sunday, September 5. The public was not invited and refrained to a demonstration with a large Merkel puppet and a lot of balloons outside the gate – and of course, we were told to be patient and wait for the results of the meeting to be revealed at a press conference on Monday morning.

The 40-page document “Energiekonzept” released on Monday, September 6 contains lots of friendly and unfriendly words about the future of the energy supply and climate politics until 2050. Like the need to reduce heat loss by improving thermal insulation of Germany's houses (the government has just reduced the subsidy program to almost nothing) and the importance of developing renewable sources of electricity (the government has just passed an amendment that will reduce the feed-in tariffs for new PV arrays to nothing within a few years) with an extremely unambitious timetable.

In the short nuclear chapter of the Energiekonzept we learn that the government wants to extend the operation licenses by 8 years for the 7 oldest reactors and by 14 years for the 10 newer ones. Of course, these years would once again be converted into electricity production contingents, which would be transferable from older to newer reactors. And if the share of renewable electricity in the German grid keeps growing, resulting in a shrinking demand for nuclear electricity, these production contingents might be stretched well into the 2040es. And the nuclear operators would be forced to pay at least 50 percent of their additional income to the new nuclear fuel tax and a new fund for the development of renewable energies.

And that was only the official part of what we learned on Monday, September 6. Later that day, in another press conference, a Greenpeace spokesman asked whether we could be sure that the nuclear corporations would indeed pay their contributions to the fuel tax and the renewables fund? The surprising answer from one of the nuclear managers was that they had signed an agreement with the government. It turned out that around midnight on Sunday, when the meeting in the chancellor's office was closed, not everybody had gone home. The four nuclear managers had proceeded to the ministry of finances, where they sat down to write what they called a “Termsheet” which was countersigned by a secretary of the ministry of finances around 4:30 Monday morning.

After a lot of public uproar, the government published the contents of this 10-page agreement, denying that they had ever intended to keep it secret. It contains a few interesting clauses, like a 500 million Euro cap on safety investments for each reactor and a kind of money-back guarantee to the corporations in case a future government would try to withdraw some of the new privileges.

In any case, if everything develops according to Merkel's plan and these agreements are turned into an amendment that can somehow be maneuvered past the Bundesrat and all the legal challenges it faces, the nuclear corporations have made quite a good deal. The Oeko-Institut estimates that their additional income, before taxes, may amount to EUR 150 billion, in a scenario expecting a moderate rise of electricity consumer prices over the next decades.

Through the years 2011 to 2016 they will pay a nuclear fuel tax: EUR 145 per gram of fuel, not EUR 220 per gram as had been suggested earlier this year. And from 2017 onwards, they will contribute to the “voluntary” renewable energy fund. Both the fuel tax and the fund will be tax-deductible, meaning that these payments will reduce the annual tax payments to states and counties. In total, Oeko-Institut estimates that a mere 37% of the additional cash flow to the corporations will be diverted to taxes or the new fund.

But then, Merkel's plan to turn these ideas into an amendment that can become law by the start of next year looks quite ambitious. The number of parties she will have to deal with keeps growing, with unlikely opponents like the pro-nuclear states – governed by her own party – demanding a share of the fuel tax and the government of neighboring Austria complaining about the increasing risk of nuclear accidents.

By the way, latest statistics from 'Arbeitsgemeinschaft Energiebilanzen' found that in the first 6 months of 2010, 23% of Germany's electricity came from nuclear power plants, and 19% came from renewable sources.

Many thousands participate in anti nuclear actions. On Saturday 18 September, some 100,000 people marched through the streets of Berlin to protest against nuclear power and to voice their anger over the government's decision to keep nuclear reactors in use beyond a deadline set by the previous government. The demonstration was organized by various environmental and anti-nuclear groups, with high-ranking politicians from opposition parties also taking part.

Now the preparations for actions against the Castor waste transport early November from La Hague in France to the interim storage facility in Gorleben really started. Several concepts are being put forward by activists: a big large blockade of the storage facility and a call to get onto the train tracks on the day the train is supposed to run there and to make the tracks unusable, to en masse remove the stones from under the tracks, i.e. to undermine them and to make them impassable in creative ways.

On November 6, a demonstration will be held, which is expected to be larger than ever before in the decade long history of the Gorleben fight.

Source and contact: Bernd Frieboese