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Germany: Plan To End Nuclear Power Raises Some Questions

Germany is the largest industrial power to plan to eliminate the use of nuclear energy. An agreement signed between the government and the nuclear industry envisages an end to the production of nuclear power in Germany in around 20 to 30 years. RFE/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston reports that critics are complaining that some aspects of the agreement are vague.

Berlin, 16 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Most of the world's industrial powers rely to some extent on electricity generated by nuclear reactors. Among them are the United States, Russia, Britain, Japan, and France.

Countries that have abandoned nuclear power include Italy, Denmark, Ireland, Greece, Luxembourg, and Portugal. Construction of nuclear plants has stopped in Spain. In Austria, only about 4 percent of electricity is produced by nuclear power plants.

Elimination of nuclear power in Germany was one of the prime goals of the coalition government of Social Democrats and Green environmentalists that came to power in November 1998. Opinions polls indicate that a majority of Germans want nuclear power to be phased out -- although it remains unclear what will replace it. Germany's 19 nuclear plants provide over 35 percent of the nation's energy needs.

This week's agreement between the German government and nuclear industry provides that each plant should have an operating period of 32 years from the time it went on line. Most German nuclear power stations went on line in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Another part of the agreement, however, prevents the government from setting a definite date for closure of the final plant. The agreement creates limits on power production for each plant, but adds that power can be transferred from one plant to another. Government officials say this means that an older station can be shut down and its power limits transferred to another station --- allowing it to remain on the grid for several years more.

Germany's newest power station (Neckarwestheim-2, near Stuttgart) went on line only 11 years ago -- in January 1989. In theory, that means the use of nuclear power should come to an end in the year 2021. But transfers of power limits from other plants could enable it to stay on line for a few more years.

A spokesman for the RWE energy company, Volker Heck, said the final hours of negotiation were, in his words, "not very friendly." He said neither side got all it wanted in the agreement. The operators of the power stations wanted an operating period of up to 40 years for each of the plants. The Green party sought a maximum of 30 years.

But Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said he believes the deal is an acceptable compromise and provides a concrete program for the end of nuclear power in Germany.

"In my view, the 32 years is for all sides an acceptable and concrete compromise."

Hardliners in the Green party said they might try to obstruct parliamentary approval of the agreement. But the environment minister, Juergen Trittin, who is a prominent Green, described it as a "very good and acceptable compromise leading to the end of nuclear power."

A commentator, Christine Schmidt, says both sides got part of what they wanted, but there is plenty of room for interpretation.

"It's a classic compromise. Both sides have saved face. However, the room for interpretation is large. How large will become clear in the continuing discussions between the government and the nuclear industry on putting the agreement into practice."

How will Germany make up for the loss of the plants that generate 35 percent of its electricity? Dietmar Kuhnt, head of the RWE power company, says the energy operators see no reason to build alternative power plants before 2005 at the earliest. According to him, excess capacity on the European power market is an impressive 40,000 megawatts. This surplus has contributed to an enormous decline in power prices in Germany in recent months.

Kuhnt says there are several possible alternatives to nuclear power. "The development of fuel cell technology, mainly on the basis of natural gas, is already at a highly advanced stage," he says. In recent years, the use of natural gas has gained a new impetus, especially in gas- and steam-turbine facilities, which produce both electricity and heat.

And many operators agree that the end of nuclear power might mean a renaissance for the use of coal. According to 1999 statistics, more than half of all German electricity is already generated from coal. But coal pollutes the air, and its further use may be limited because of international agreements on climate protection.

Other experts say more use could be made of hydroelectric power. Other, environmentally friendly sources of power, such as windmills and solar power receive only slight encouragement although experiments are being made with windmills in some coastal regions.

Another problem to be resolved in the phasing out of nuclear power is the storage of radioactive waste. Germany has no facilities of its own for reprocessing spent nuclear rods -- for 20 years they have been sent to plants in France and Britain. The transports have frequently led to violent struggles between demonstrators and police. This week's agreement provides for temporary storage facilities to be built close to each nuclear power station, although the details must still be negotiated.

Many German commentators have described this week's agreement as a framework whose details still need to be filled in. But as Chancellor Schroeder put it, "We are on the road to eliminating nuclear power in Germany." sc