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Europe: Germany Steps Back From Ban On Nuclear Processing

  • Roland Eggleston

Bonn, 27 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Germany's government has agreed under pressure to delay the first step in the country's planned withdrawal from the use of nuclear power.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder announced late yesterday that his government would not stop the sending of spent nuclear fuel rods abroad for reprocessing next year after all.

The step ended a serious dispute with Britain and France. At present, spent fuel rods from Germany's 19 nuclear power stations are sent to France and Britain for reprocessing because there are no reprocessing facilities in Germany. The trade brings big profits to British and French companies and political analysts had feared the dispute would unsettle relations within the European Union. Germany is the current president of the EU.

Germany's governing coalition of Social Democrats and Green environmentalists had earlier agreed that a ban on reprocessing should go into effect by next January.

However, in a series of heated meetings with government officials this week, the German energy industry argued that the timetable was technically impossible to meet. At another level, the governments of France and Britain protested that Germany could not unilaterally cancel contracts worth thousands of millions of dollars with the reprocessing plants without paying substantial compensation -- something which Germany was unwilling to do.

Last night Schroeder, who in the 1970s was a prominent participant in anti-nuclear rallies, said he accepted the industry's arguments. "We cannot meet the January deadline," he said in a television statement. "It is not technically possible."

Schroeder said the ban on shipment of fuel rods will go into effect on a step-by-step basis as each of Germany's nuclear plants builds its own facilities to store spent nuclear fuel.

Schroeder said he could not estimate how many years the industry needed to prepare itself for a total ban on reprocessing the fuel rods. The Environment Ministry in Bonn said today it could take four to six years. In the meantime, the transport of used rods to France and Britain for reprocessing will continue.

The concessions were not all on the side of the government. The new agreement also includes an acknowledgement by the energy industry that in the long-term the use of nuclear power is on its way out in Germany.

An Environment ministry spokesman (who spoke on condition of anonymity) told RFE/RL today: "Yes, the delay in ending the reprocessing of used fuel rods is a disappointment. But it is important that we gained a public acknowledgement by the energy industry that the use of nuclear power in Germany is coming to an end."

He said the industry had never previously acknowledged the long-term withdrawal from the use of nuclear energy. He said the German government is "satisfied that the nuclear industry now recognizes that the majority of voters want to end the use of nuclear energy in [the] country."

A spokesman for the German nuclear power industry, Manfred Timm, said the new agreement meant Germany would not violate its contracts with the French and German reprocessing plants and was unlikely to pay compensation.

The first of Germany's 19 nuclear power plants went on line in 1968. In the 1970s, nuclear opponents blocked Germany from building its own reprocessing centers for used nuclear fuel rods. As a result, the reactors have sent their waste to the French Cogema plant at Cap La Hague, which is owned by the French state, or to a British plant at Sellafield. These plants remove plutonium and uranium from the wastes and ship the remainder back to Germany, where the wastes are either placed in underground storage or reused in other ways. The existing contracts between the German nuclear plants and the reprocessing plants run until the year 2005. The reprocessors had claimed they would lose a total of $6. billion if Germany went ahead and stopped the transports by next January.

The Environment Ministry in Bonn said today the French and British plants had successfully treated 9,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel rods over the years. The spokesman said that as of today there are 600 tons waiting treatment in France and another 470 tons awaiting treatment in Britain.

The Environment Ministry said the eventual ban on reprocessing of spent fuel rods meant that Germany would have to build facilities for storing them. The spokesman said the spent rods would first be encased in a steel housing and stored in a transit depot for several decades until they cooled. Sometime in the future, they would be placed in a permanent depot deep under the earth.

According to the ministry spokesman, Germany already has three transit depots where spent nuclear fuel rods might be held in the first stage. (They are at Ahus, Gorleben and Greifswald.) However, other commentators have noted the use of these depots could provoke protests from people living nearby.

The spokesman acknowledged that many problems lay ahead in achieving the goal of a Germany free of nuclear power. He said, "We are determined to end the use of nuclear power as soon as possible," adding that the government believes "that most Germans share" that goal. However, he said the government also knows "that it is not a simple matter of issuing a decree [and] there will be a lot of problems to be resolved."