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Nuclear power to remain in Germany's energy equation

Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to rely on nuclear power longer than planned has significant opposition – but the alternative is more reliance on Russian gas.

By Isabelle De PommereauCorrespondent / September 29, 2010

German police officers stand in front of antinuclear demonstrators during a protest against the German government's energy policy in front of the chancellery in Berlin, Sept. 28.

Markus Schreiber/AP


Biblis, Germany

When Germany pledged a "comprehensive and irreversible" end to nuclear power barely a decade ago, antinuclear activist Erhard Renz thought he'd won. Reassured that the Biblis nuclear power plant near his home would be turned off within years, Mr. Renz turned his green passions to installing solar panels. "We were convinced it was over," he says.

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But Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to extend the life span of Germany's 17 plants an average of 10 years beyond 2021, the date the country's last plant was to be turned off, reawakened the antinuclear fervor within Renz, a retired Daimler Benz engineer who lives near Biblis, a Rhine Valley village that is home to the plant that was the world's largest when it opened in the mid-1970s.

On Sept. 18, along with tens of thousands of Germans in Berlin, Renz took part in what observers say was the biggest antinuclear protest in Germany since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. "For years and years, we said, 'As a big economic power, we're getting out of nuclear.' And now, what is our message? That Germany couldn't make it?" says Renz. "What a debacle for renewable energy, and for Germany."

Keeping nuclear reactors running longer is part of an ambitious road map of the country's energy future that Chancellor Merkel's coalition of conservatives and liberals ratified Sept. 28. It considers nuclear power a "bridge" toward helping renewable energy provide almost all of the country's electricity by 2050, up from the 16 percent today that Merkel describes as "no less than a revolution in energy generation." But Merkel's reversal on an earlier commitment to end nuclear power also hit a raw nerve, rekindling one of the most deeply anchored traits of today's German culture: its visceral aversion to nuclear power.

Critics see hypocrisy on green energy

"This decision casts doubt on what Germany told the world all those years," says Marcel Viëtor, who is in charge of energy and climate issues at the German Council on Foreign Relations, a Berlin-based think tank. "It gives the impression that Germany does not totally believe in the potentials of renewable energy. It's saying, 'We still cannot do it without nuclear, because renewables do not provide enough energy.' And people could be wondering, 'Why are the Germans promoting renewable energy abroad, but are reluctant to use it to its full extent at home?' "

"It's challenging what has become the core part of German identity," adds Miranda Schreurs, director of the Environmental Policy Research Center at the Free University of Berlin. "There's going to be protest."