German coalition to extend life of nuclear plants

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government agreed to a two-tier extension of the lifespans of German nuclear power plants on Sunday after marathon talks laid the groundwork on energy policy.

The agreement ended months of division in the coalition over how long Germany’s 17 nuclear power plants should run beyond current limits, under which the last is due to close by 2021.

Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen said after the meeting in Berlin that the lifespans of Germany’s nuclear power stations would be extended by 12 years on average.

“We’ve agreed that older nuclear plants will receive an extension of eight years, and newer ones operating with different technical standards will get a 14-year extension,” he told reporters.

The debate has also pitted nuclear power plant operators against environmentalists, about 1 000 of whom staged a protest outside the chancellery where the meeting was held.

The agreement is set to be the cornerstone of Merkel’s broader energy strategy which will be decided later this month.

She has invested much political capital in the strategy, which must be implemented smoothly if she is to reverse her government’s slump in opinion polls in time for a string of important elections early next year.

That will not be easy as Germans are sceptical about the safety risks of nuclear power and unresolved questions about nuclear waste storage.

Renewable energy
Environmentalists, however, will likely applaud the decision made on Sunday, as part of the deal, to steer public and private support to Germany’s renewable energy industry.

Roettgen said the agreement foresaw long-term support for developing renewables, a pet project of his that is now to be boosted to the tune of 3 to 4-billion euros annually.

He said the deal would see utility companies pay nine euros per megawatt-hour of nuclear electricity to support renewables.

The contribution from utility companies should amount to 300 per year in 2011 and 2012, then drop to 200 million euros annually from 2013 to 2016, a government official said earlier.

Germany’s main utility companies include E.ON, RWE, EnBW and Vattenfall.

Sunday’s meeting also set down some of the specifics of a separate nuclear fuel element tax intended to raise 2,3-billion euros ($3,1-billion) a year.

The official, who declined to be named, said the tax would run for six years and be set at 145 euros per gram of uranium and plutonium.

The deal faced immediate criticism from the opposition Social Democrats (SPD), who said they planned a legal challenge if Merkel’s centre-right coalition attempted to pass it into law without approval of the upper house of Parliament.

The coalition lost control of the upper house, the Bundesrat, after a regional election defeat in May, and it is unclear whether opposition by the centre-left SPD and Greens could stall the plan once the legislative process is started.

While in power in a previous administration, the two parties passed the law behind the 2021 phase-out date for atomic power which Merkel’s conservatives and their pro-business Free Democrat allies are now seeking to sidestep.

The SPD said on Sunday it would reverse any extension of the nuclear plants’ lifespans if the party returned to power.

Merkel plans to make a statement on Monday, and Roettgen and Economy Minister Rainer Bruederle are expected to reveal further details of the plan. – Reuters

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