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Nuclear power: Is Germany out of step with Europe?

This month’s issue has somewhat of a German flavour. We feature three articles that tap into the zeitgeist of the power industry in Germany: clean coal, wind power and, last but not least, nuclear power.

Nuclear energy remains a stridently divisive issue in Europe’s largest economy, but now that so many European countries have decided to jump on the nuclear bandwagon in recent months, is Germany out of line with the rest of Europe?

Italy, which decided to ban nuclear power outright following a referendum in 1987 in the wake of Chernobyl, last month took a step closer to building a new generation of nuclear power plants; Italy’s largest utility, Enel, has signed a deal with EDF of France that laid out plans to build a minimum of four European Pressurized Water reactors.

Even Sweden, one of the most progressively green nations, has embraced a return to atom smashing. The Scandinavian nation announced last month that it was revoking a 1980 referendum decision to phase out nuclear power and insodoing scrap a ban against building a new fleet of new build nuclear plants.

Put simply, most European nations are now turning to nuclear power because it is seen as a reliable source of baseload, low carbon power generation and a crucial component of a balanced energy mix, which does not over-rely on one particular source. To this end, Germany, which took the decision in 2000 to completely phase out its nuclear energy programme by 2020, looks like the odd one out.

As Paul Breeze points out in his article about the phase-out (p.54), Chancellor Angela Merkel has made it clear several times that she is in favour of nuclear power, but she has been handcuffed by the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) under the terms of the Grand Coalition when she came to power in 2005.

This year, however, is election year. The SPD remains committed to abandoning nuclear power, although it has shown signs that it may compromise, Merkel’s Christian Democrats remain in favour, while the Greens continue to be staunchly anti-nuclear.

So, Germany’s political parties have remained fairly rigid on the issue of nuclear power, but there has been a shift in public attitudes towards the nuclear option. Academic research has shown that German voters have become more pragmatic. Recent opinion polls suggest that the younger voters of today have not approached the question of nuclear power with the same ideological fervour as that of older generations.

It appears that, across the board, Germans have become less sceptical of nuclear power of late. A poll published by Der Spiegel in December 2007 showed that 36 per cent of respondents disagreed with the phase-out. By July 2008, the proportion had risen to 44 per cent. According to an Economist poll conducted in mid-2008, 54 per cent of voters were in favour of extending the life of existing nuclear plants.

Those in favour point to the arguments that the closure of 21 GW of capacity would lead to a greater reliance on imported gas and ultimately to higher electricity prices, not to mention the risk of a power shortfall. With the destructive economic winds blowing through Europe’s largest economy, the issue of nuclear power is not as close to the top of the political agenda as it once was, but voters will still vote with their wallets.

Tim Probert
Deputy Editor