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Germany: Government Vows To End Nuclear Era

Munich, 22 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Germany's governing coalition, which came to power late last year, has vowed to end the country's use of nuclear power.

The government of Social Democrats and Green environmentalists, led by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, believes it has a mandate to end the nuclear era, which began 30 years ago. It was one of the main points in election campaigns last year, and opinion polls show a majority of Germans want nuclear power to be phased out.

It is government policy to shut down all nuclear power plants in a few years time, and to abandon fossil fuels such as coal, which are being exhausted or have other disadvantages.

The Greens believe that, at the minimum, three or four nuclear plants should be closed before elections in four years.

One scientific response has been to devote new efforts to develop new solar energy technologies. The Environment Ministry in Bonn says the government already is running a test program with 10,000 units.

But the technology still is experimental. One plant operated by the Shell Oil company produces only 25 megawatts of power. Another plant at Alzenau produces only 13 megawatts.

By comparison, the smallest of Germany's 19 nuclear plants produces 357 megawatts and the largest 1,440. Together, the 19 plants produce about 22,000 megawatts.

Brigitta Hansen at the Environment Ministry says the increased interest in solar power reflects growing pressure on German scientists to find new sources of energy at an affordable price.

The government is determined to carry out its promise to shut down all nuclear energy plants as soon as technically possible, she says. But there has to be something to replace the electricity they provide.

Nuclear power currently meets 35 percent of Germany's energy needs. There are other potential sources of energy, but international experts say that none could replace nuclear power on its own. Many scientists believe that one day solar energy may do so, but in the meantime it appears that a non-nuclear Germany would have to rely on several different sources of energy to satisfy its needs.

These include hydroelectric power and the use of organic waste (biomass). Some call for greater use of coal, but this has the disadvantage of increasing pollution. One of the planks of German policy is to reduce emissions into the atmosphere. Coal is also expensive because much of it has to be imported.

Economics Minister Werner Mueller supports using windmills as a supplementary source of energy. Hundreds of windmills have been built along the North Sea coast, and last year they produced 17 percent of the energy used in the province of Schleswig-Holstein. However, they provide less than one percent of the energy used nationwide.

Another alternative favored by environmentalists is to make more use of natural gas, which they say is ecologically more acceptable than oil or coal.

But German officials are cautious about relying on it too much. Some are concerned that four-fifths of the natural gas used in Germany comes from other countries, including a third from Russia. Some fear that in a time of political crisis Germany might become a hostage to its energy needs.

Experts say that aside from political decisions, economic factors may assist in the demise of nuclear power in Germany. Most of the country's nuclear power plants are between 10 and 30 years old. It is accepted in the industry that the costs of building a plant can be recovered in 20 years by selling the power produced. This means that by the year 2009 the investment costs for all current nuclear power plants will have been recovered.

Some companies would like to keep their reactors in use until as late as 2029, to reap a satisfactory profit. But the Wuppertal Institute for the Climate, Environment and Energy says the reality is that after 20 to 25 years most nuclear power plants need repairs and costs can be prohibitive.

One example is a reactor at Wuergassen which closed in 1995 after 23 years of operation because repairs would have cost $250 million and the operators considered it was no longer profitable. The nuclear power station Biblis-A, now 24 years old, is facing repair bills running into millions and may also close.

New technology for nuclear power is being developed in Germany, but few experts believe any new nuclear power stations will be built. Some of the technology is now being offered to France, which has 54 nuclear power stations with little debate about closing them.

Still, many Germans remain cautious about the permanent demise of nuclear power. Among them is Economics Minister Mueller. He created a minor storm among his colleagues by declaring that nobody could say for sure that the rejection of nuclear energy would last forever. In an interview recently, he asked rhetorically: "Who knows what will happen in 50 years?"

(This is the last of six features from NCA on the status of the nuclear power industry in several nations, East and West.)