Germany, US at nuclear poles
As President Bush leaves for Europe today, Berlin signs plan to shut nuclear plants within 25 years.
As President Bush prepares to leave today on a six-day trip to Europe - his first extended visit - many Europeans are looking for explanations of why he rejected the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.Skip to next paragraph
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For Germany - not one of Mr. Bush's scheduled stops - his declaration last month of plans to promote new nuclear power plants, part of a broader policy on meeting America's future energy needs, only added to the astonishment.
In this country, which views itself as a leader in the global debate on both climate change and nuclear energy, nuclear power is considered an outdated 20th-century technology.
Today, Chancellor Gerhard Schroder and representatives of the country's leading utilities are expected to sign a carefully hammered-out agreement that aims to phase out the use of nuclear energy within the next 25 years by shutting down the country's 19 atomic power plants.
While Bush argues that greenhouse-gas reduction measures and economic growth are contradictory - and nuclear power is necessary to meet increased US energy demands - Germany is trying to prove the opposite.
"For one, Germany is the first really big industrial country that's giving up nuclear power, and secondly, it's the country with the most ambitious climate-protection program," says Jorg Haas, an environment specialist with the Berlin-based Heinrich Boll Foundation, a group close to the German Greens party. "I think we can be proud that we are showing that this works."
The government's energy strategy seeks to compensate for the loss of atomic power - which currently accounts for 30 percent of domestic electricity production (compared with 19 percent in the US) - through better conservation and new technologies, particularly those that use renewable-energy sources and increase efficiency.
Reached after roundtable talks with the country's nuclear industry, the German agreement sets the framework for later amendments to Germany's atomic-energy laws. It foresees imposing a 32-year lifespan on nuclear power stations, which means that Germany's newest reactor would close as early as 2021.
At the same time, the unpopular transport of nuclear waste would be drastically reduced, reprocessing of spent fuel abroad would end, and plant operators would have to increase their liability coverage tenfold, to $2.3 billion, until the last reactor goes offline.
Putting a "comprehensive and irreversible" end to nuclear power is a cornerstone of Chancellor Schroder's center-left coalition, especially for the junior-partner Greens. Born out of the environmental movement two decades ago, the Greens originally attacked atomic power not only out of safety concerns, but because they viewed big utility companies as a threat to democracy.
The 1986 Chernobyl disaster was instrumental in shaping public opinion here. Polls consistently have shown that a large majority of Germans favor an end to nuclear power.
Still, Environment Minister Jurgen Trittin, himself once a shaggy-haired radical, has had to make compromises with the nuclear industry that disappointed hardcore environmentalists. Television images of 12,000 demonstrators - and heavily-equipped police - went around the world in March, when nuclear waste rolled through northern Germany for the first time in four years.
"I think that the Greens should be clear that the battle isn't over with this 'atomic consensus,' " says Mr. Haas.