ENERGY: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Nuclear power policy shift for Germany
, October 17, 2009
The victory for Germany's Christian Democrats, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, in recent national elections, paves the way for a major shift in energy production towards nuclear power.
In the elections, although the Christian Democrats received only 33.8 per cent of the national vote - a slightly lower proportion of the vote than in the previous election - they became the dominant party in the German Bundestag (parliamentary lower house). This was because support for the left-wing Social Democrats fell by more than 11 per cent to 23 per cent. It seems that many former Social Democrat voters switched to the Left (formerly the communist party which ran East Germany) and the Greens, whose vote increased by 2.6 per cent to 10.7 per cent.
A big winner in the elections was the pro-business Free Democrats, whose support rose nearly 5 per cent to 14.6 per cent.
A new coalition between the Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats will have about 332 seats in the Bundestag, while the divided opposition parties will have fewer than 300.China
The governing coalition will move quickly to support German industry, which has suffered from the emergence of China as a major exporter to Europe.
In foreign policy, there are expected to be a number of subtle shifts: the new coalition is expected to support the military commitment in Afghanistan, but is sceptical, like the governments of France and Italy, about the entry of Turkey into the European Union.
In a major break with the past, the Free Democrats want to abolish military conscription and move to a fully professional army. That will mean streamlining military resources, better training and a smaller army.
In domestic policy, the major shift is likely to be a move towards the expansion of the nuclear power industry, a policy which Angela Merkel supported but the Social Democrats vetoed.
Germany currently has 17 nuclear power plants, built between 1975 and 1989, generating about 20 per cent of the country's electric power. As a result of pressure from the anti-nuclear Social Democrats and the Greens, legislation was carried in 2000 to phase out nuclear power by 2021. The former coalition government of the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats left this legislation on the statute books.
However, the election of the new government is expected to push Germany in the direction of France, where 80 per cent of the country's electricity comes from nuclear power.
One of the major incentives for nuclear energy comes, paradoxically, from the push to control greenhouse gas emissions, a primary objective of the EU. A January 2007 report by Deutsche Bank warned that Germany will miss its carbon dioxide emission targets by a wide margin, face higher electricity prices, suffer more blackouts and dramatically increase its dependence on gas imports from Russia, as a result of its nuclear phase-out policy.
Construction of nuclear power stations would help Germany reduce carbon dioxide emissions and make it less dependent on carbon-heavy coal-fired power stations and on imported Russian gas.
A complication which will delay the building of nuclear power stations is that licensing must be confirmed by both the federal government and the states, meaning that either can exercise a veto on construction.
In the meantime, the phasing out of existing nuclear power stations, which was due to begin immediately, is likely to be deferred, bringing immediate economic benefits to both the country and industry.
Of the country's 17 reactors, all were built by the German manufacturer, Siemens-KWU. Of these six are boiling-water reactors and the others are pressurised-water reactors.
Since the 1980s, there have been major improvements in reactor technology, including the construction of gas-cooled reactors and fast-breeder reactors, which produce more nuclear fuel than they consume.
A poll early in 2007 found that 61 per cent of Germans opposed the government's plans to phase out nuclear power by 2020, while 34 per cent favoured a phase-out.
This reflected earlier polls. A poll late in 1997 showed that some 81 per cent of Germans wanted existing nuclear plants to continue operating, the highest level of support for many years and well up from the 1991 figure of 64 per cent. The vast majority of Germans expected nuclear energy to be widely used in the foreseeable future. The poll also showed a sharp drop in sympathy for militant protests against transport of radioactive waste.Public support
After the October 1998 election, a poll confirmed German public support for nuclear energy. Overall 77 per cent supported the continued use of nuclear energy, while only 13 per cent favoured the immediate closure of nuclear power plants.
In November 1998, Germany's electric utilities issued a joint statement pointing out that achievement of greenhouse goals would not be possible without nuclear energy. A few days later, the Federation of German Industries declared that the "politically undisturbed operation" of existing nuclear plants was a prerequisite for its cooperation in reaching greenhouse gas emission targets. Nuclear energy then avoided the emission of about 170 million tonnes per year of carbon dioxide, compared with 260 million tonnes per year being emitted by other German power plants.