Saturday, July 19, 2008

NRC sends Jedi Knights to Vermont Yankee

Agency's top man heads a special inspection team

obiwankenobiThe Nuclear Regulatory Commission launched a special inspection last week into the circumstances surrounding a new leak in one of the cooling towers at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, Vt. It sent top-level structural engineering specialists to the plant.

In a dramatic move, NRC Chairman Dale Klein dispatched the agency's senior career executive, Executive Director for Operations Bill Borchardt, to the plant to work with the inspectors and plant officials. The decision may have had something to do with the fact that NRC Chairman Dale Klein was testifying before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., wanted to know why Entergy wasn't fined for a cooling cell collapse in August 2007.

"Did Entergy pay any penalty for this glaring mistake?" asked Sanders. "They did not pay one nickel ... for that mishap."

Klein told Sanders that because the failure wasn't considered safety related, the NRC had no authority to issue fines. After the cell collapsed last August, Entergy received a "green" inspection finding, which is the lowest and least severe finding issued by the NRC. It said the finding was for "a failure to effectively incorporate readily available industry operating experience into the tower inspection program and processes."

The latest problems with the cooling towers has the agency's engineers scrambling to get on top of the problem. NRC's lead for New England, Samuel Collins, said,

"While Friday's leak was not in the one cooling cell considered safety-related, we know there is significant public interest in this event. We need to independently verify that the safety-related cell is structurally sound. Even though the remaining cells in the cooling towers do not perform a safety function, we need to understand that Entergy is getting to the bottom of the problems so that the safety-related cell is not impacted.”

Sarek at Vermont Yankee

According to the Burlington Free Press, the NRC’s press office told the newspaper the NRC executive director of operations routinely visits nuclear power plants, but rarely, if ever, to observe an inspection that is under way. Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the agency, said,

“It underscores the degree of NRC interest in the issue and in its resolution at the highest levels of the agency.” Photo: NRC

New Leaks, More Outrage

Sheehan said the NRC is concerned that problems with the plant’s cooling towers have persisted despite Entergy Nuclear’s work to upgrade the towers’ structures after last year’s dramatic collapse of a portion of the west cooling tower complex.

“We’re concerned because the plant did work last year to get at the root cause of the problem, yet we’re seeing new problems,” Sheehan said.

The state’s Public Service Department, said in a statement the new leak raises questions about how well the plant is being managed.

“This ongoing pattern has once again shaken our confidence in their ability to manage the plant’s systems. They need to improve their maintenance and engineering solutions. They need to take real action to clearly demonstrate to Vermonters that they know how to manage this plant.

Where's a plumber when you need one?

According to NRC documents, the new leak, less severe than last year’s incident that spilled thousands of gallons of water, involves a 50-inch diameter pipe in the plant’s east tower complex.

Vermont Yankee has two cooling towers, each consisting of eleven cells. Only one cell in the west unit is considered to be safety-related. On Friday, July 11, plant operator Entergy informed the NRC that plant personnel discovered a pipe joint leaking an estimated 60 gallons per minute in a non-safety-related cooling cell in the east cooling tower.

The leak occurred when the supply header, which carries 90,000 gallons per minute of water, sagged after the underlying horizontal support beam broke away from the vertical column to which it was bolted.

Minor cracks were also found to supporting members on two of the west cooling tower cells, including one that sustained a pipe break and partial collapse last August. The company reduced power to ensure the plant met Vermont cooling water discharge temperature limits for water being returned to the Connecticut River. The safety-related cell was not affected.

VYcoolingtowercollapseEntergy’s initial review indicates Friday’s leak does not share the same cause as the August 2007 cooling tower collapse, which was attributed to degradation of the wood in the cooling tower. The plant owner is conducting a root cause analysis of the problem. The NRC also will evaluate Entergy’s planned actions to repair the cooling towers and return them to service.

License renewal process will be impacted

The leak and subsequent investigations come at a bad time for Vermont Yankee. Next week the NRC panel is scheduled to begin hearings in Newfane, VT, on Entergy’s proposal to extend the license by 20 years. The plant was built in 1972.

Entergy filed its application for license renewal in January 2006. The NRC usually takes about two years to complete a review and make a decision. This week the agency told Reuters the review of Vermont Yankee will take a lot longer.

The response from groups that oppose license renewal for the plant was swift. James Moore, for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG), questioned whether the new leak is evidence that Entergy Nuclear is cutting corners when it comes to maintenance procedures at Vermont Yankee.

“It makes one wonder where else they’ve cut corners. There seems to be a culture of not doing everything it takes to fix and secure that facility.”

Paul Burns, also of VPIRG, blasted what he called the "dangerous level of corporate incompetence shown by Entergy Nuclear and the pass-the-buck attitude of state and federal regulators."

Ray Shadis, a consultant to the New England Coalition, and frequent critic of Vermont Yankee, unloaded with both barrels.

"There is an easily observable pattern here if anyone cares to look. Entergy apparently considers itself above learning anything from its peers in the industry. Had it paid attention to industry experience it would have replaced the structural and design defective towers."

Representatives from both groups called for the immediate and permanent shutdown of Vermont Yankee.

Speaking of Finances

The NRC has turned down the plan by Vermont Yankee to use some of the money from its decommissioning fund for management of the plant's spent nuclear fuel and said Entergy, the plant's owner and operator, has over estimated the fund's likely earnings.

Entergy wants to use some of the money from its decommissioning fund, estimated to be $400 million dollars short of what it needs, to cover the costs of storing spent fuel from the reactor.

In a notice made public on July 17, the NRC said Entergy failed "to provide reasonable assurance the spent fuel management withdrawals would not inhibit the ability of the licensee to complete radiological decommissioning." It ordered Vermont Yankee to "provide a revised spent fuel management plan within 90 days."

The Vermont Legislature this year passed and Gov. Jim Douglas vetoed a bill that would have required Vermont Yankee owner Entergy Nuclear to ensure there would be enough money in the decommissioning fund before being allowed to sell Vermont Yankee and four other nuclear plants to a newly created company.

The AP wire service reported that Entergy has not been making regular deposits into the decommissioning fund since 2002. The NRC reported that there was about $440 million in the fund as of Dec. 31, while other estimates put the cost of decommission at $800 million or more.

The NRC also told Entergy that it had run violated rules that requiring it to get a separate regulatory review if it wanted to estimate growth in the decommissioning fund at more than 2 percent a year.

"A licensee may use a credit of greater than 2 percent and only up to the time of license expiration, if the licensee's rate-setting authority has specifically authorized a higher rate. This is not the case for Entergy VY," the NRC said.

Vermont Yankee spokesman Robert Williams said plant officials had not had time to review the NRC's decision. "We will review the NRC issues and ensure we meet all regulatory and financial obligations regarding the decommissioning trust fund," Williams said in an e-mail to the Associated Press.

Update 07/21/08

In previous posts I've reported that Vermont Yankee accounts for up to half of the electricity supply in Vermont. This figure is incorrect. The real number is about one-third.

# # #

Al Gore's moon shot speech for solar and wind

Good analysis, bad advice

al_gore Former vice president Al Gore (left) gave a high profile speech in Washington, DC, on Thursday July 17 in which he called for conversion of all U.S. electricity generation to solar, wind, and other renewable resources within 10 years. In it he compared his goal to that of President John F. Kennedy who called for putting a man on the moon within a decade.

Just about any politician worth his salt knows that making promises that live in the future, especially well beyond the next election, are an easy sell. Gore knows, from experience, that ten years is about the lifetime of any big idea because it is within the grasp of two senate terms and the political lifetime of a two-term president. So it makes sense to package a super size vision inside of a practical time line. That's one of the few things he gets right.

global-warming-mapGore is right about the time frame for immediate action on climate change, but his advice on solar and wind falls short because it ignores the fundamentals of base load demand for electricity. He's right because studies by the U.S. military indicate rapid climate change could destabilize parts of the world and have serious consequences for national security.

He's wrong because a 10 year time horizon for this rapid a change in fuel sources for electricity generation is beyond the reach of the global manufacturing capacity of the industries who make solar and wind electric generation components. Other nations, besides the U.S., have ambitious programs for renewable energy, and their demands for these systems and their components will compete with ours just as they do for fossil fuels.

Gore said ending reliance on fossil fuels was necessary to save the world's climate from the perils of global warming. Gore also said later in a television interview with CBS news anchor Katie Couric (video) (transcript) that "clean coal doesn't exist" and that the high price of fossil fuels is as much a reason to adopt his plan as the threats from global warming.

dot earth One of the best critiques of Gore's speech is from New York Times reporter Andrew C. Revkin who went through it line-by-line lighting up some of Gore's grandiose and sometimes misinformed rhetoric. Revkin, who covers climate issues for the newspaper, is at the top of his form on the New York Times blog "Dot Earth." Revkin's analysis is outstanding, and should be read by anyone interested learning more about the scientific and economic realities of global warming.

Borrowing money from Peter to pay Paul

The most serious objection to Gore's plan isn't about technology. It is about money. Gore says his plan will work if the U.S. adopts a carbon tax on fossil fuels and transfers the funds to solar and wind technology investments. This is a huge transfer of wealth for which the numbers don't work. Even the Congressional Budget Office, a nonpartisan agency, has pegged the price of carbon taxes as having a mean impact on the U.S. economy if ramped up too quickly or too high.

piggy_bank Gore's plan defies political reality. Neither a new president nor congress would be able to overcome the temptation to spend all that carbon tax revenue (billions - real money in the Dirkson paradigm) on things besides solar and wind power.

A more realistic scenario is a gradual phase-in of carbon taxes so that utilities and industry relying on fossil fuel have time to implement energy conservation measures and change fuel types. The point of a carbon tax isn't to produce revenue. It is to ratchet down fossil fuel use and reduce greenhouse gases. Gore's plan would reward investors in wind and solar energy industries at the expense of everyone else.

Good Analysis - up to a point

A good speech always needs an anchor sound bite, something the wire services can sink their teeth into for a headline. Gore didn't disappoint his audience. He said,

"We are borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that has to change."

This sounds like an argument to use a mulching lawnmower rather than bagging the clippings and taking them to the landfill. In the former case, I burn gasoline to cut grass and throw it away after spending money on seed, fertilizer, and chemicals to grow it. It's pretty stupid. On the other hand, using a mulching mower recycles the inputs to the entire system and puts the nutrients back in the ground without the wasteful practice of hauling bags of clippings to the landfill. The same principles that apply to recycling grass clippings also apply to the nuclear industry.

Why Gore is wrong about nuclear energy

I would have been much more interested in what Al Gore had to say if he was less of an alarmist and more of an ecologist. I would have been more interested in his campaign for solar and wind energy if he'd put in in context with nuclear energy. Instead, in his CBS TV interview with Couric, he repeated some of the mantras of anti-nuclear groups. While Gore has tempered some of his previous, and alarming, anti-nuclear views, his analysis of the industry is still wrong.

  • One size does not fit all

Nuclear Fuel pebbles First, nuclear plants do not come in just one size. There are a number of small reactor designs coming off the drawing boards as well as some very large ones. The Chinese have a pebble reactor project and so do the South Africans. Both designs are in the range of 200 MWe.

On the other end of the scale the Japanese are developing very large units, 1,700 MWe and also investing heavily in fast reactor designs that will burn MOX fuel. There's a recycling answer to critics, like Gore, who use the spent fuel issue as a means to bash the industry. Opening Yucca Mountain is necessary, and progress is being made, even if Sen. Harry Reid, (D-Nev.), the Senate majority leader, doesn't like it.

  • Three dozen reactors no waiting

Second, it doesn't take 15 years to build a nuclear plant. The average time for new plants is expected to be six-to-eight years, including NRC reviews, and will likely be less by the end of the next decade. Once we get lessons learned from building the first four new units, the "first-of-a-kind" problems, supply chain issues for major components should be resolving themselves due to demand.

nrc logoAccording to the NRC, five nuclear power plants submitted COL applications in 2007 and four more submitted them in 2008. Another eight are on tap to do so by the end of this year. By this count there are 17 nuclear power plants in full, measurable motion in the U.S. There will be twice that number by 2018. No baloney.

The point is the utilities planning to build these new nuclear power plants are working on a set of realistic assumptions and have to answer to their stockholders and state public utility commissions. They wouldn't be going forward if Gore's assumptions about the industry had any basis in reality.

  • How to power a country and leave the bomb behind

india_singh150_aug07Third, most countries who want to build nuclear plants don't want to get into the weapons business because it is expensive and just makes them a target. For instance, for all its political posturing, India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh (left) is betting the ranch that nuclear cooperation and controls on his military nuclear program make more sense than not having uranium for the civilian plants. According to BusinessWeek, India has plans for 30 new reactors once it figures out how to deal with nonproliferation issues and its own internal politics. It also has to convince a skeptical Nuclear Suppliers Group and the IAEA it means what it says. There are plenty of reasons to think that the deal won't be completed under this administration, but a new president will find opportunities with India, but also Italy, and even Brazil to foster cooperation on nuclear energy.

Give me that old time religion

Al Gore's speech played to his current strengths, which is to be both a technological visionary and a prophet of doom and salvation. If Al Gore hadn't gone into politics, been born with a silver spoon, and fostered an interest in high technology, he could have wound up hustling through the backwoods of Tennessee thumping a bible and telling the rabble to repent from their sins. Well, maybe not. Still, there's a revival tent preacher somewhere in the mental make-up of the former VP. He said in his speech,

"This is a generational moment. A moment when we decide our own path and our collective fate. I'm asking you - each of you - to join me and build this future."

Being smart isn't the same as being right

Also, Gore is not your ordinary member of the baby boom generation. Besides being a former two-term VP, and Nobel Prize winner, he's now sitting at the heart of America's nexus of high technology in Silicon Valley. He's a member of the board of directors of Apple Computer, and an advisor to Google.

solar-energy He is also a partner in the venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, heading that firm's climate change solutions group. Maybe that's why he's so interested in funding the solar and wind industries? While it is true he has broader interests, the relationship is there just the same.

As a technology visionary, Gore's speech is full of high flying ideas. He's got to have to come down to earth to make his case. It can't be all solar and wind and not in 10 years. It will take decades to make significant changes in U.S. energy sources.

Al Gore gave a speech with some good analysis, but it has some bad advice. Everyone knows he is a really smart guy. Here's tip. Even smart guys can be wrong.

* * * Updates * * *

Here are a few selected links to what others are saying about Gore's speech. If you find more, please post a comment. I'll add it to the list here.

Next Big Future

CleanTechBlog

NEI Blog

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Strathmore advances NM uranium mill

A Japanese partner could be an investment magnet

rocahondaThis article was originally published in Fuel Cycle Week, V7, N287 July 16, 2008
by International Nuclear Associates, Inc. This post is an edited version.

When Uranium Resources (nasdaq:urre) dropped out of its deal to buy the Rio Algom uranium mill in late June, few were thinking about other potential mill builders waiting in the wings. But last week Riverton-based Strathmore Minerals Corp. (TSX VENTURE: STM) issued an update on its planned 3,500-tons/day capacity uranium mill and tailings disposal facility for its uranium projects in northwestern New Mexico.

Strathmore said in a statement that it has now completed the alternative sites analysis that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) requires for mill licensing, and has identified several potentially feasible sites, including one that Strathmore already owns. In early 2008 the Strathmore team also finished an alternative tailings disposal technical report that assessed various tailings disposal technologies, and last April its engineering contractors completed a 30% design report. The report includes a contingency expansion of mill capacity from 3,500 to 7,000 tons/day throughput. This is a very large mill by any measure and it is testimony to the principle that small uranium companies are not constrained from thinking big.

Strathmore may be pursuing the same goal as URI, but its plan differs in one key aspect: the junior uranium firm has a big financial partner with very deep pockets. It is the Japanese conglomerate Sumitomo Corp. Last year Sumitomo recorded nearly $22 billion in sales and reportedly booked $1.6 billion in net income. A 2007 Reuters profile called Sumitomo the third-largest diversified trading firm of its kind in Japan. It has a global conglomerate of subsidiaries, and within its Nuclear Energy Department, the Mineral Resources Division plays an important role in securing uranium for fuel manufacturers that supply Japanese reactors.

Competing With China for Uranium

Sumitomo’s interest in uranium mines in New Mexico and elsewhere is driven in part by Japan’s intensifying competition with China to secure nuclear fuel supplies. The reason is that China’s planned nuclear energy expansion is shaping up to be the most aggressive effort in the history of the nuclear industry. Within the past two years China has let contracts for eight new nuclear reactors including two EPRs from AREVA, four AP1000s from Westinghouse, plus two new VVERs from Russia.

Even more astonishing last month Westinghouse told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that Chinese officials had revealed that the government wanted an astounding 100 AP1000s as a combination of operating plants or some number under construction there by 2020. While not a firm goal, the statement indicates the scale of Chinese demand. This request came as a surprise to new Westinghouse CEO Aris Candris who said the firm had been expecting orders for up to 40 reactors. Westinghouse also said it was designing a larger-capacity reactor of up to 1,700 MWe that could be targeted to the Chinese market.

Meanwhile Japan relies on nuclear power for 30% of its electricity, and the nuclear portion of its electricity generation is only going to rise in coming decades. For its part Sumitomo supplies uranium to a Japanese utility Kansai Electric Power (KEPCO). Like just about everything else in this story, Kansai is a big player in the world of nuclear energy utilities.

KEPCO’s three nuclear power plants can generate up to 5,068 MWe, 45% of the utility’s total generating capacity of 11.3 GWe. It should come as no surprise that KEPCO and Sumitomo are looking globally for uranium. This is a race they cannot lose. They have jointly invested in West Mynkuduk uranium mine in Kazakhstan, owned by the state-run nuclear company Kazatomprom. Sumitomo and KEPCO each own an equity stake in APPAK, a local company that will develop the mine.

Room for a Mill in Investment Model?

Sumitomo’s investment model for the Strathmore property may turn out to be similar to that of the joint venture in Kazakhstan. The initial development at West Mynkuduk will cost $100 million, of which Sumitomo is to fund 25%, with KEPCO picking up another 10%, leaving the other 65% to Kazatomprom. World Nuclear Association figures indicate that the mine is expected to open production in 2008 and peak at 1,000 tU/year (2.6 million pounds U3O8) in 2010. Sumitomo will sell the entire output to eight Japanese power utilities, and among them KEPCO will have preferential transaction rights.

With its uranium-hungry customers in Japan, Sumitomo could seek an investment in New Mexico to develop along the same lines in Kazakhstan. That means Sumitomo would want to acquire a significant percentage of the mill output for KEPCO and probably other utility customers in Japan. A key question is whether the Kazakh model transferable to the U.S.?

Strathmore’s Roca Honda project has an NI 43-101-compliant measured and indicated mineral resource of 17.5 million pounds of U3O8, with an inferred resource of 15.8 million pounds. The property consists of 63 unpatented mining claims over 1,840 acres on Bureau of Land Management land. Strathmore has pointed out that the mine is nowhere near Navajo lands. Last July Strathmore signed a deal with Sumitomo that could give the Japanese investor a 40% stake.

So far Sumitomo has only paid in $1 million to fund a 40% share of a bankable feasibility study, but on its completion the two partners are to decide whether to move ahead with it. If they do give it the green light, Sumitomo could conceivably invest more than $50 million in development costs and subsequently own up to 40% of the output. The mine is expected to produce about 1,000 short tons of U3O8 (769 tU) per year starting in 2013. That reportedly comes to about 12% of Japan’s current annual needs.

So far Sumitomo has not committed to the mill, as Dave Miller, president and chief operating officer of Strathmore Minerals, confirmed in an e-mail.

“At this time the joint venture is on the deposit,” he wrote. “However, the economics work much better with a local mill than milling out of state. Ultimately I would expect Sumitomo to join in and finance a portion of the mill costs.”

Sumitomo’s Financial Throw-Weight

One problem for the Kazakh investment model is that Strathmore is not in the same financial league as Kazatomprom. Strathmore had only $17 million in cash and equivalents on its balance sheet as of last December. It has had no revenue over the past three years and its stock has dropped from $3.50/share in January 2007 to $1.47/share at market close on July 11. Strathmore’s total market capitalization is $107 million on 72.5 million shares.

That means that, like URI, Strathmore will need investment from other uranium mining companies to build the mill, and the output of their mines to feed it. Sumitomo is positioned to become a major investor, but it would want to lay off some of the financial and operational risks. If Sumitomo takes a 40% stake in the mine and mill, Strathmore must still raise another $120-150 million from others, thereby taking the role of a packager of outside investments rather than a primary owner of a mill.

Yet the partnership with Sumitomo could offer Strathmore a significant advantage. From a financial perspective, the Japanese trader has tremendous throw-weight. If it decided to invest more, the project could quite possibly turn into an investment magnet that would support a complete financing plan.

The challenges for Strathmore faces in building its mill in New Mexico will be much the same that URI had. Strathmore will need to build investor confidence in its Roca Honda project plus four other mining properties in New Mexico, as well as in the financial sustainability of a huge new mill. Having Sumitomo as high profile investor in the mine is a good step in that direction, but it is only the first of many.

# # #

Monday, July 14, 2008

Free lance writer needed

To cover a uranium conference in Perth, Australia

Independent subscription publication covering the global nuclear industry seeks a freelance writer who will be present at the Perth Uranium Conference next week (July 23 & 24) and could provide coverage.

Press release about the conference is available at this link.

Please contact Nancy Roth for more information.

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.