Sunday, July 13, 2008

Merkel swings for the fences

It's showdown time for the Conservatives and Social Democrats over nuclear energy

Yankee swing for the fences Baseball and German electoral politics aren't a combination you would ordinarily think of, despite the popularity of brats at most stadiums, but this week German Chancellor Angela Merkel might just as well have been standing at home plate in Yankee Stadium swinging for the fences against a 100 mph fastball.

She's just come back from the G8 summit in Japan where Germany was the oddball in the bunch because of its plans to close its nuclear power plants. The rest of the G8 countries, including Italy, which got rid of its nuclear plants in the 1980s, now see nuclear energy as a way to cut greenhouse gases. Some kind of epiphany must have occurred for Merkel because she's gone from watch and wait to stand and fight pushing the issue front and center for the 2009 elections.

Germany_Angela_Merkel_chancellorAFP reports that on July 13 Merkel (right) issued a courageous call to stop Germany's plan to get out of the business of generating electricity with nuclear energy. In doing so she will bet her government's future by go head-to-head with fierce opposition from her coalition partners the Social Democrats who want to end the use of nuclear energy in Germany. Right now Germany plans by 2020 to decommission its 17 nuclear power plants which produce 25% of the country's electricity (25.5 GWe).

The stratospheric price of fuel oil and intense political pressure to cut greenhouse gases has given Merkel all the reasons she needs to take on the green groups that support her government as well as those who oppose it. The action comes amid growing fears by Germans that it will be impossible to slash greenhouse gas emissions without nuclear energy.

Merkel, a former environment minister, said Germany will have to tackle the issue.

"I will work to ensure the operation of our safe nuclear power plants in Germany is extended. I do not believe that we can solve the problem of climate change with atomic energy alone. But we will not be able to ensure our supply for the foreseeable future in a way that protects the climate without atomic energy."

According to AFP she told the German newspaper Bild that the world's most industrialized countries now need set a course that reduces the use of fossil fuels. Last year, when Merkel headed the European Union, its members agreed to a target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least 20 percent by 2020, compared to 1990 levels. And at last week's G8 summit in Japan, members agreed to at least halve global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Something must have clicked in Japan. Her political opposition in Germany has tried to isolate her on the nuclear energy issue, but this time she's not alone.

180px-2005-10_ErwinHuber800The leader of the Bavarian party in Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, Erwin Huber (right), went further, saying that if the conservatives win next year, they will reverse the plans to do away with nuclear power. He added he would not rule out Germany building new reactors as is planned in Britain.

Renate Kunast Germany's Social Democrats have vowed to block any attempt to roll back the plans to phase-out nuclear power. Green groups in Parliament, led by Renate Kuenast (left) also contribute to opposition political parties, and they led efforts under the previous government to stop nuclear. In response to Merkel's announcement, they've have vowed to launch a nationwide grassroots campaign against extending the operation of nuclear reactors.

"We will expose the presentation of atomic power as a supposed cure-all as a cheap ploy," Kuenast said.

Deutsche Welle wire service reported that Social Democrat chairman Hubertus Heil warned his coalition partners against breaking the consensus over the phasing out of nuclear power. Heil said his party's position on the issue was clear. The SPD chairman said if the CDU wanted to turn this into a election campaign issue that his party would not be afraid to take them on.

"It is a social debate that split this country for thirty years. We are sticking with the agreed phasing out of nuclear power. There is no wobbling there. The conservatives are also aware of that. It is in our coalition agreement."

Polls show most Germans oppose nuclear power but skyrocketing energy costs have led to calls to reconsider the phase-out of is nuclear power plants. An interesting sidelight is that there is also concern that the country's technological expertise, and export earnings, will suffer because of a diminished nuclear industry at home.

Merkel is counting on these trends and changes in the political landscape to continue to turn in her favor. As an expression of her new found confidence, Merkel also rejected SPD's proposal to include a ban on building new nuclear plants in the constitution in return for their agreement to prolong the operation of existing ones. In an interview published in Bild newspaper this weekend she said,

"I am in principle very cautious when it comes to changing the constitution. The issue of energy provision has no place in the Basic Law."

The stakes are very high for Germany and for acceptance of nuclear energy globally. If Angela Merkel loses the next election on the issue of nuclear energy, it will undercut political support for it in other European countries. The whole world will be watching.

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