Germany to Review Nuclear Options

In Germany, the changing political winds are carrying the whisper of yet another angle on using nuclear power as a political tool in the fight to keep positive ratings in the "peak oil" era. Gerhard Schroeder has reacted to a poor showing by his party in recent state elections by calling for early Federal elections: hanging on his hope that the opposition party will not be prepared to bring a credible candidate forward with short preparation time. Meeting the challenge, the CDU has firmly stood behind the current party leader, Angela Merkel, and most pundits are expecting a close race. Now Merkel has initiated her campaign with the announcement that, if elected, she intends to reopen the standing agreement that all nuclear power will be phased out in Germany by the year 2021. The leaders inside the nuclear industry are hedging their response, repeating their commitments to the existing agreement while expressing their readiness to listen if the government insists on reopening the issue. And to get the idea accepted widely, Merkel has a card up her sleeve...The phase out agreement, made between the government and industry in 2000 and then signed into law in 2001, limits reactor life to 32 years. Merkel proposes to allow the reactors to operate as long as it is technically feasible. Industry experts expect that cost-effective operation at acceptable safety levels can certainly be extended 40 years, and probably 50 years for many reactors. The announcement by Merkel represents the possibility for the industry to forego substantial investment in replacement technologies and watch as the profits roll in from the already written-off facilities. Merkel intends to make this proposal viable by tying it to a requirement that at least 50% of these "windfall" profits must be reinvested in development of alternative energies. Questions of course remain as to how much this would effect governmental support for independent alternative energy research programs and whether the industry can be restructured so that some of the benefits can be seen in the consumer's power bill.

Opposition has been prompt. Environmental Minister Juergen Trittin(of the Green party) has protested that this move would endanger investments already underway, and the jobs they will create, because no new plant can compete with a fully written-off plant. The anti-atomic lobbies are once again throwing their weight into the argument.

Germany steps into a boiling pot with this theme. Finland began work in February 2005 on the only nuclear power plant actively under construction in the EU. (If you are anti-atomic, this certainly causes second thoughts: Finns are some of the most educated people on earth and suffered quite directly the effects of Chernobyl, yet proceed along this path.) France, a leader with over 75% of demand fulfilled by atomic power, has reopened the discussion of new plants. In the USA, with over 100 plants the leader by total production capacity (760,000 GWh(e) versus 420,000 Gwh(e) in runner-up France), the Bush administration has also made noises about potential for new nuclear plants (remember Uncle Treehugger's exhortations to use this emotional topic to help the climate change issue finally get the attention it deserves). The US NRC is also pursuing an under-the-radar deal to put a new Toshiba technology in Alaska by 2010. And in the rest of the world, an additional 26 nuclear plants are under construction, mostly in rapidly developing nations. See see the Umweltinstitut München for an informative summary (in German only, but the tables are interesting and can probably be interpreted with a little help from Babelfish). English speakers looking to know more can check out the US Dept. of Energy or the World Nuclear Association.