The backlash to the German chancellor’s decision to extend the life cycle of 17 nuclear plants has been felt on the streets. Leaving its mark on the ballot box may be next.
The protests by tens of thousands of people against the shipping of radioactive waste to a storage site in northern Germany last week have revealed the strength of public opposition to a nuclear policy that will haunt Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, for the remainder of her term.
Her deeply unpopular decision this year to prolong the life cycle of Germany’s 17 nuclear plants by 12 years on average could cost her the 2013 general election. Mrs Merkel’s centre-right coalition has suspended the planned phase-out of all reactors by 2021, amending a decision taken by a previous centre-left government in 2002 to end nuclear power generation in Germany.
Mrs Merkel has argued that nuclear power, which provides 12 per cent of Germany’s electricity needs, is essential as a “bridging technology” to ensure a stable, affordable power supply for the next two decades while Germany converts to renewable sources of energy.
But the fresh lease of life for the country’s ageing nuclear reactors has exposed her to accusations of backroom deal-making with the four top power companies, which stand to earn at least €50 billion (Dh250.49bn) in extra profits from the extension, at the expense of public safety.
Assurances by Mrs Merkel that tens of billions of euros of those windfall profits will be collected in tax to help fund the expansion of renewable-energy generation have failed to assuage the public. A survey conducted last month by the Emnid polling institute found that 72 per cent of Germans opposed longer lifetimes for the country’s nuclear power plants.
The controversy has given a major boost to the opposition Greens party, which has hit record highs of more than 20 per cent in opinion polls.
The Greens, who have their roots in the West German anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s and 1980s, and the centre-left Social Democratic Party have vowed to reverse the nuclear extension if they come to power in 2013. That is a real prospect given that support for Mrs Merkel’s centre-right coalition has plummeted over the nuclear issue, even though the country is enjoying its strongest economic boom in two decades.
Major shipments of German radioactive waste from a French reprocessing plant to a storage site near the village of Gorleben began in 1995 and each of the 11 consignments since has been met with protests. But the demonstrations this year were bigger and more violent because of public fury that the last nuclear reactor will not be switched off until 2035.
Last Sunday, riot police resorted to water cannon, teargas and baton charges to clear the track. In the end it took the waste convoy more than 90 hours to make the 1,450km journey from La Hague in Normandy.
The shipment itself was a reminder that the German government has failed to find a permanent dump for storing waste generated by nuclear power plants. Gorleben, a small community in the thinly populated Wendland region of northern Germany, close to the former boarder between West and East Germany, was identified as a potential nuclear storage site in the 1970s because it stands above a deep salt dome. An interim store was built above ground in the 1980s.
But a previous centre-left government in 2000 halted research into whether the salt dome was suitable as a permanent dump for materials that in some cases will be radioactive for more than 100,000 years. Mrs Merkel’s government lifted the moratorium on research this year, allowing exploration to resume hundreds of metres below ground.
Germany’s aversion to atomic energy contrasts with a growing use of nuclear power across Europe. Other countries are embracing it as a relatively cheap, low carbon source of energy that will help them meet emission reduction targets.
Britain plans to build several new reactors, Sweden has reversed its own phase-out, France gets most of its electricity from nuclear power and 10 plants are under construction in central and eastern Europe, including six in Russia.
Mrs Merkel’s nuclear policy has wrecked the green reputation she had earned by pushing for tough international carbon emission standards since first taking office in 2005.