Germany: Greens See Red Over Nuclear Power Extension

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Jens Meyer / AP

'Nuclear power harms Germany' is the Greenpeace message projected on the cooling systems of the nuclear power plant in Grafenrheinfeld near Schweinfurt, southern Germany, on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2010.

Going against massive public opposition, the German cabinet on Tuesday gave the green light to extend the nation's use of nuclear power. Hailing the move earlier as a "revolution," Chancellor Angela Merkel claimed that nuclear power will serve as a "bridge technology," in order to give Germany more time to expand its production of renewable energy sources. But it could also give Merkel a headache, as the proposed extension sets the government on a collision course with political parties, environmental groups and the public.

If the proposal is approved by the German legislature, the operating life of Germany's 17 nuclear reactors would be extended by an average of 12 years beyond its originally planned phase-out. The reactors were due to be closed by 2022, according to a previous agreement hammered out almost a decade ago by a coalition of Social Democrats and Greens. Now, the nuclear power plants would be allowed to run until 2036, though some experts predict the reactors will stay open even longer.

In a sign of growing public fury, several hundred anti-nuclear protesters gathered outside Merkel's office on Tuesday morning. "The nuclear power extension is a disaster for Germany — it increases the risk of nuclear accidents and will produce far more dangerous radioactive waste," says Tobias Münchmeyer, the Berlin-based energy expert at Greenpeace. With surveys suggesting that a majority of Germans support an immediate shutdown of all of the country's reactors, Münchmeyer says the decision shows Merkel's center-right coalition to be "far removed from reality ... The four energy giants have been given a billion-dollar present."

The German government says the deal would bring in $40 billion in taxes and levies from the nuclear industry. The four main utilities, E.ON, RWE, EnBW and Vattenfall, would have to pay a new tax on nuclear-fuel rods from 2011 until 2016, which is expected to raise up to $3 billion each year. And on top of that, the companies would have to make contributions to a government-run fund for developing renewable energy.

The cabinet also approved a new "energy concept" on Tuesday, which includes ambitious targets for drawing more power from renewable energy, modernizing power grids, and improving efficiency by 2050. The government wants greenhouse-gas emissions to be cut by 80% by 2050, and for 60% of the country's energy needs to come from renewable sources by then, up from 16% today. Merkel was adamant that the new energy plan would provide a role model for climate-change action: "If we don't lead the way, we won't be able to convince other countries to take responsibility as well."

But most Germans aren't convinced, and the news that the cabinet was considering a nuclear extension has given new momentum to the nation's strong anti-nuclear movement, which dates back to the 1970s. Recently, campaigners have stepped up their protests at the controversial nuclear-waste depot in Gorleben, Lower Saxony. And on Sept. 18, up to 100,000 Germans marched through Berlin to vent their anger at the nuclear extension, shouting slogans like "Stop nuclear power now!" Environmental activists say the move to delay the shutdown of nuclear reactors will slow down the development of renewable energy — and that the current demonstrations are just the beginning. "There'll be so many protests this autumn that Chancellor Merkel's government will soon realize it doesn't have public support for its nuclear course," Jürgen Trittin, parliamentary leader of the Green party, told reporters. "This is a dirty deal with the nuclear industry."

The nuclear issue has galvanized support for the Green party, which has grown to be a major force in national politics. "Some polls put the Greens on a par in popularity with the Social Democrats at around 20% — that's unprecedented in German history," says Dieter Rucht, professor of sociology at Berlin's Social Science Research Centre. Rucht points out that the Greens have capitalized on anti-nuclear protests, and believes the center-right coalition has underestimated the level of public anger around nuclear energy. "Older, experienced activists from the 1970s and '80s have joined younger protesters and grassroots networks," he says. "There's a tough and united opposition to nuclear power and Chancellor Merkel may pay a high political price."

The new energy bill is due to get its first reading in the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament, on Oct. 1. There's debate over whether is also needs to go through the Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament, where the government no longer has a majority. If the coalition manages to bypass the Bundesrat, as it hopes to, opposition parties and Greenpeace have another plan up their sleeves — they're preparing to mount a legal challenge in the Federal Constitutional Court. With the government's approval ratings already at rock bottom, Merkel can't afford to make Germany's green movement red with rage.