Angela Merkel has proclaimed her government's new energy
concept draft to be the most environmentally friendly and secure way
forward for Germany
in energy matters. According to Chancellor Merkel, the program amounts to a
"true revolution" in the way in which the energy supply is assured for the Federal Republic (Welt).
It provides for an extension in the running times of nuclear reactors for a
period of 12 years on average. Moreover, a nuclear fuel tax is supposed to
generate 2.3 billion Euros annually in additional fiscal income (Bundesregierung).
Furthermore, the new plan stipulates that the nuclear industry pay 1.4 billion Euros into a fund for the development of renewable energies. A separate efficiency fund is to be set up in the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology in order to promote greater energy efficiency. Two model plants are to be built in order to sound out the potential associated with the geological burial of sequestered CO2 emissions. Meanwhile, wind energy projects are slated to receive additional funding through a special credit program at the State Bank KfW (Stern).
The heated political debate that predated the energy concept's release is now set to give way to what the Germans call "ein heisser Herbst" (a hot political fall season). In particular, the nuclear compromise agreement reached between the Merkel Government and the "Big Four" nuclear power plant operators has led to enormous controversy. Even Transparency International has voiced misgivings as to the influence exerted by the nuclear lobby. According to the head of its German section, private contracts between a government and four private companies regarding a matter of public policy lead to concerns about the democratic nature of the process (Zeit).
The opposition likewise is up in arms over the nuclear agreement. The head of the SPD, Sigmar Gabriel, claims that the energy concept owes more to the lobbying skills of the nuclear energy sector than to sound public policy considerations. He regards the government's new energy concept as divisive. It would pit the interests of the common man against those of powerful business interest, with the former clearly losing out (Welt). The Left Party called the nuclear deal an insolent attack on democratic principles (Linke). Citizens should not allow the nuclear industry to embroil the government in secret deals. Instead, voters ought to insist upon the conduct of a referendum on the nuclear compromise (Linke).
The Green Party is also disenchanted and maintains that the government's energy concept does little to promote the cause of renewables in reality. According to the environmentalists' assessment, the new policy will be responsible for a 21 percent drop in the production of wind and solar energy by 2020, as renewable energy will find it difficult to compete against cheap nuclear power. Moreover, they point out that the disposal issue for nuclear waste is far from resolved, even without extended reactors' running times (Gruene). Greenpeace cautions that an extension of the lifespan of nuclear reactors would lead to a threefold increase of nuclear waste and represent a threat to public health (Greenpeace). Recent news items on excess radiation recorded at the Asse Federal nuclear waste disposal site (Stern), and on mysterious leukemia cases near the aging Kruemmel nuclear power plant illustrate such popular fears (FAZ).
Not surprisingly then, around 61 percent of Germans surveyed in mid-September were opposed to an extension of operating times for nuclear reactors. Only one third supported the government's plans. Interestingly, the divisions run along party lines: 57 percent of CDU/CSU voters and 58 percent of FDP people were in favor of the nuclear reprieve. Meanwhile, opposition party supporters overwhelmingly rejected longer running times: This is true for 75 percent of SPD members, 83 percent of the Greens, and a full 90 percent of Left Party supporters (ZDF).
These numbers, however, have done little to dampen the coalition government's enthusiasm for its new energy policy. The plan's proponents still uphold it as the best and most affordable transition model to move the country away from a fossil-fuel dependent economy toward one that will largely rely on renewable energies. They argue that the opposition's criticism is unwarranted, as the new program merely seeks to correct the incentive structure for those who invest in green technologies. The government seeks to make green technologies more competitive, not least for the sake of maintaining Germany's worldwide leadership in this important new economic sector (Welt).
Whether or not one accepts the argument that nuclear energy is a bridging technology necessary to facilitate the transition to a low-carbon future, the nuclear issue will remain divisive for many years to come. Young Germans in particular are very concerned about environmental questions, as a recent youth study conducted by the energy corporation Shell reveals: 76 percent of young Germans consider climate change a top priority. Moreover, compared to figures from 2002, interest in politics has increased by an average of ten percent for youth aged 12 to 17. One third of the 15- to 17-year-olds claimed to be personally interest in political issues. For issues which affect them personally, 77 percent of young Germans would be willing to partake in signature campaigns, while 44 percent declared themselves willing to take to the streets in protest. As a result, the importance of climate issues to national and international politics can be expected to increase even further over the next years.
The government's declarations notwithstanding, passions on the nuclear issue are running high this fall. Protests in Berlin on September 18 brought between 40,000 and over 100,000 citizens (depending on who you trust in terms of figures: the police or the protests' organizers) out into the streets over the government's decision to extend operating times for reactors. Protestors claimed that the government's Atomkompromiss (nuclear compromise) amounted to little more than the coalition government caving in to the powerful nuclear lobby. Leading figures from the Green Party, SPD, and Left Party joined the protest's ranks and called for a stop to what they perceived to be a sell-out. The movement reminded of the anti-nuclear campaign of the 1980s, but the outrage over the nuclear deal now forged a new cross-generational protest movement made up of people who might otherwise never have engaged in public protests. According to the Spiegel, Germany today may be witnessing the birth of a new anti-nuclear movement. Obviously, the issue is far from resolved and will remain central to German public and political debate for many months to come.
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