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EU: Germany Angers Partners Over Nuclear Waste

Munich, 26 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Germany is on the brink of a serious dispute with its European Union partners France and Britain over its plans to end the use of nuclear energy.

Both countries have warned German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder that they may take their case to an international court unless the Bonn government is prepared to compromise. Thousands of millions of dollars in contracts with British and French firms are at stake. Political analysts in Bonn describe the case as one of the most serious involving Germany in the history of the EU.

The dispute is the result of plans by Germany's new Left coalition of Social Democrats and Green environmentalists to phase out the nation's 19 nuclear plants. For the past 20 years, spent nuclear fuel rods from these power stations have been sent for reprocessing to plants in France and Britain. Under new German laws, however, the transport of nuclear fuel rods will end a year from now (January, 2000). Germany itself has no plants specializing in the reprocessing of nuclear waste.

The French and British companies concerned are demanding compensation for the loss of business. They argue that the German decision violates binding long-term contracts. Their stance has been strongly supported in public by French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and several senior British politicians.

Germany, however, refuses to consider a straightforward compensation deal. That position was reiterated (Jan. 24) by Schroeder in a television interview. But the Chancellor did indicate he was willing to consider possible compromises that could ease the financial losses to the French and British companies.

For these firms, reprocessing nuclear waste is very big business. Germany's Environment Ministry estimated today that the French reprocessing firm Cogema, which is state-owned, stands to lose around $4.6 billion if Germany cancels the contract. The British company Nuclear Fuels could lose about $1.9 billion. In the case of the French company, the present contracts with the German government run until the year 2014.

If the contracts are broken, one possible compensation plan now being considered in Bonn would have Germany offering to take back hundreds of tons of fuel rods which it has already sent to France and Britain. The idea would be for the French and British companies to earn compensation money by preparing the fuel rods for return to Germany. But the idea has not received much of a welcome from the reprocessing companies themselves.

German Environment Minister Jurgen Trittin, a member of the Greens Party, last week expressed his government's official view that there is n-o legal basis for the French and British companies to seek financial compensation if Bonn changes its laws on reprocessing nuclear fuels. He said that the election of the new government last September and the creation of new laws amounted to what he called a "force majeure" that overrode previous commercial agreements. In the energy industry, force majeure is a term usually used to cover failure to honor contracts in emergency situations, such as when violent storms interrupt oil deliveries.

This official view has been criticized by some circles inside Germany. The nation's most prominent newspaper, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," wrote that if every change of government were considered to be a force majeure in regard to existing contracts, there would soon be no order in international economic life. The FAZ acknowledged that Germany's agreements with the reprocessing companies were not binding international treaties. But it pointed out that Bonn and Paris had exchanged letters pledging each government to honor the agreements. It said Germany's position could be damaged if doubts arose about the reliability of its promises.

Many German political analysts expect the affair to develop further in the next few weeks. The first development may come on Wednesday (Jan. 27), when fresh government statements are expected after the federal cabinet studies a draft of the new nuclear law.