Renewed battle on safety at Germany's nuclear plants
By Rohan Minogue Sep 3, 2007, 13:53 GMT
Berlin - Conflict over the future of Germany's 17 nuclear power stations has broken out within Chancellor Angela Merkel's broad coalition government.
Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel is worried about safety at the seven older power stations dating back to the 1970s and wants to shut them down by September 2009 in exchange for allowing newer reactors to continue longer in operation.
The gains in safety - reducing the threat of terrorist attack and cutting the risk of a major nuclear accident - would be significant, Gabriel says.
'This would cut the total nuclear risk considerably,' the environment minister said over the weekend, adding that only 5 per cent of the generating capacity would have to be shifted.
'From an economic point of view, this amount of electricity is insignificant,' he added.
The electricity generating companies - Vattenfall, RWE, E.ON and EnBW - are resisting the move.
The costs of the older power stations, the oldest dating back to 1974, have long since been written off and they are generating large profits for the companies.
In this they are receiving backing from the Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU).
CDU General Secretary Ronald Pofalla said there was no legitimate way of cutting the running times of the older stations. 'The legal framework makes no provision for this,' he said.
Merkel's party wants rather to extend the life of the plants, pointing out that they produce much less in the way of greenhouse gas emissions than do coal-fired plants. And climate change is a pet theme of the chancellor's.
Germany generates more than 20,000 megawatts of electricity through nuclear power annually - around a quarter of its needs.
Pofalla may have the law on his side, but concerns are mounting about safety at the older plants, especially after two had to shut down abruptly earlier this year as a result of fires.
While the reactors themselves were unaffected, the incidents once again provided publicity of the wrong sort for the industry.
As a result of the incidents, six of Germany's 17 reactors are currently down, with two being refurbished and a further two undergoing routine inspections.
Gabriel, a Social Democrat (SPD), is sticking to the policy agreed under the SPD-Greens government that lost power in 2005 - to turn off the last nuclear power station by 2022.
That policy is continued in the coalition pact between CDU/CSU and SPD drawn up after the inconclusive September 2005 elections led to the current unwieldy 'grand coalition.'
Gabriel is, however, prepared to make a minor adjustment, allowing the newer plants to operate a few months longer.
Under this scheme, Neckarwestheim 2, which produces close to 1,300 megawatts, would be the last to shut down in March 2023, instead of in June 2022.
Gabriel had found 'the neuralgic point' of the nuclear industry, the Sueddeutsche newspaper said.
It noted that the older stations operated on a single circuit, in which the water used to drive the electricity-generating turbines flows through the reactor and is thus contaminated with radioactivity.
The aim was to build a particularly compact plant to reduce costs, but experts now query the safety of these ageing nuclear plants.
'A reactor melt-down could under unfavourable conditions lead within hours to a failure of the security container with catastrophic consequences,' says Wolfram Koenig, head of the government's radiation protection office.
A report compiled following the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001 revealed that the older reactors were vulnerable to similar attack. The study was intended to be secret but was leaked.
By contrast, the new reactors are seen as much safer. A second water circuit isolated from the radioactive core drives the turbines. And they are much less vulnerable to terrorist attack from the air, according to the report.
Gabriel's problem is that he cannot withdraw operating licences without good grounds, unless he wants to face huge claims for compensation from the generating companies.
He is reliant on their cooperation, but they have other aims. They have applied for precisely the reverse - to keep the older plants running longer while shortening the lifespan of the newer plants.
The intention is to hold out past the next elections, which must be held by September 2009, in the hope that Merkel's CDU/CSU will then be able to form a government without the SPD.
That might bring about a reversal in policy in favour of nuclear power.
Plants like Neckarwestheim 2 and Isar 2, which also went online in 1988, are among the most efficient in the world. Last year Isar 2 claims to have produced more electricity than any other reactor worldwide, some 1,400 megawatts.© 2007 dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur