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After the German elections

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
WISE Amsterdam

At the September 27, general elections (with an all time turnout low of only 67 %) Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party won enough seats to allow her to form a coalition with the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). The big winners were the FDP, the reformed communist Die Linke (The Left) party, and the environmentalist Greens. However, the left-wing parties do not have a majority and internal struggle (SPD will not form a coalition with Die Linke) would have made a centre-left coalition impossible.

The two traditional Volksparteien, the CDU with its Bavarian sister CSU, and the SPD, received only 58% of the vote. Compare that percentage to 78% in 2001, 82% in 1987, and over 90% in 1972.  Commentators called the election results, 'historic.' Angela Merkel, the German chancellor famous for her gift of non-expression, bridged over any historicism by grinning into cameras exactly as accustomed.

Brüchige Übergangstechnologie
Chancellor Merkel, an East-German-degreed physicist, is nuclear power pro-nostalgic. The CDU platform paper calls it a 'Brückentechnologie' (bridging technology). Her new coalition partner, the FDP, uses a slightly different term: 'Übergangstechnologie' (transition technology). Both words mean this: the German nuclear phase-out implemented by Gerhard Schroeder's SPD-led government will be pushed-back.

The CDU (Christlich Demokratische Union) and their Bavarian Division CSU (Christlich Soziale Union) are large parties covering a spectrum of opinions on particular points, even including a small anti-nuclear group. The Chancellor kept campaigning for extensions, while CSU speaker (and possible future minister for environment and nuclear) Markus Söder called for a deal with the utilities to use the profits from extended "life"times for research into renewable energy sources, implying that more research is needed before they are ready to use.

Are the ‘Friends of nuclear’ celebrating too early?
But, as an editorial of the Financial Times Deutschland put it the day after the elections, ‘Atomfreunde freuen sich zu früh’ (‘Friends of nuclear celebrate too early’)

One day later, on September 29, Der Spiegel online, published an article in which FDP environment expert Michael Kauch said that although FDP wants life-time extensions, the party does not want that for all reactors; "The FDP's committee decided before the elections that we want an extension of running times, but not for all reactors". He, however, did not mention a number.

But the race isn’t run in the CDU. According to an article in the September 30 issue of the Financial Times Deutschland, some leading persons within Merkel's party (CDU) are not supporting the party line of phasing-out the nuclear phase-out. "There is a timetable about how the phase-out of this bridge technology will go on. For the moment, that is mandatory", Saarland state Prime Minister Peter Mueller said. "To me, the question of nuclear power plant license extensions is not a priority." Instead of reversing the phase-out law decided by Red-Green, it would make more sense to achieve a secure, inexpensive and sustainable energy supply based on existing legislation, Müller said. "In this spirit, we are working on a future without nuclear energy". He demanded more energy efficiency and a fast expansion of renewable energies.

The decision on the nuclear phase-out was legislated in 2002 as a result of wide discussion and consensus in the society. It has largely stimulated the German energy industry to make major investments in wind and solar energy, making Germany a world leader in the large-scale renewable energy technologies. Rather than phasing out the nuclear phaseout, the new government should close down dangerous old reactors and maintain the country's leading role in clean energy.

Another important legacy of the Schroeder SPD/Green coalition government is the Renewable Energy Sources Act. This key law obliges grid operators to pay fixed feed-in tariffs for electricity won from renewable sources. This lucky law has gained popularity all across the German political spectrum – even the FDP has come to see its far-reaching importance: fixed feed-in tariffs, creating thousands of Green jobs, have helped Germany become the world's first address in wind technology.
Still, using the recovering economy as an excuse, the Merkel government will short-sightedly shorten renewable energy subsidies, particularly to solar power, which runs on panels 'Made in China.'

Stocks in Germany's main nuclear utilities rose on the news: EOn up 3.2% and RWE up 2.8% while solar power companies slumped between 1.9% and 4.3% on the expectation of a revision to €3.2 billion-a-year feed-in-tariff for renewables.

The German antinuclear movement has a fight ahead, but some say it is easier to fight an open conservative government than against one that pretends it would be anti-nuclear. The movement is actually growing stronger (see the 50,000-strong demonstration in Berlin on September 5), following the current crisis with radioactive waste and a recent series of accidents at aging German nuclear reactors.

Nuclear industry circles are optimistic and delighted. The World Nuclear News headlines: 'Election brings hope for German nuclear'. About the expected prolonged operational life with 10-15 years for the reactors (beyond the 32 years decided in the phase-out law), they stated: "similar reactors elsewhere operate for up to 60 years". 

According to the World Nuclear Association, the forthcoming change in Germany's stance "could bring a new zeal to energy and climate policies of the G8 group of industrialized nations as well as their approach to negotiations".

However that has to be seen; the climate issue was not on the forefront in the discussion on nuclear power in Germany; energy shortage and transition technology was.

Sources:  Newsreports and mail, 27 & 28 September 2009 / Der Spiegel, 29 September 2009 /, 29 September 2009 / World Nuclear News, 28 September / Financial Times Deutschland, 30 September 2009
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