Alarms ring as Germany moves to unplug nuclear plants

Chancellor Schrder, with Greens as coalition partners,postpones reforms in nuclear waste disposal.

If it is hard to dispose safely of nuclear waste, European environmentalists are discovering this week, it is not much easier to do away with the nuclear power stations that produce it.

The German government's decision to phase out nuclear power generation, and to halt the reprocessing of spent fuel, caused such a domestic and international storm that German Chancellor Gerhard Schrder was forced on Jan. 25 to postpone his planned reforms.

His surprise pullback, under pressure from the German nuclear industry and from neighboring governments, shows how a web of complex legal and diplomatic relations among nuclear players and governments in Europe can make political and environmental decisions hard to implement.

That lesson was first learned in Sweden, where voters decided in a referendum 19 years ago that the country should be nuclear-free by 2010, and where the government announced two years ago that it would close down the first of 12 reactors in July 1998.

Nonetheless the reactor, at Barsebaeck, is still operating normally while its owner, Sydkraft AB, fights the government closure decision in court and demands compensation for lost investment.

Germany's decision to get out of nuclear power generation was especially contentious, capping more than 20 years of antinuclear activism by the environmentalist Green party, which grew out of the antinuke movement.

Now the Greens are coalition partners in government with Mr. Schrder's Social Democratic Party. Shutting down the country's 19 reactors, which generate 35 percent of Germany's electricity, was a key point in the coalition agreement that the two parties negotiated last year.

A timetable for the gradual switch to different forms of power generation was left open, though, with the Greens hoping to close all nuclear plants within 10 years and Schrder suggesting that 20 years would be a more realistic target.

Nuclear industry leaders, however, have been insisting that existing reactors should be allowed to live out their planned life, meaning that some would still be functioning in 40 years' time.

The government and the nuclear industry began talks on Jan. 26, in a bid to find a compromise timetable. Those negotiations could last as long as a year, officials in Bonn have said.

Environment Minister Jrgen Trittin, a Green leader, had been due to present to Parliament a new atomic energy law - toughening the constraints on nuclear plant operators. It has been postponed six weeks.

That law would ban the export of spent nuclear fuel for reprocessing after Jan. 1, 2000. This provision provoked outrage in Britain and France, where the Sellafield and La Hague reprocessing plants depend heavily on German custom for their business. They were especially provoked when Bonn said it would not offer compensation.

British Nuclear Fuels, which operates the Sellafield site, stands to lose $1.9 billion from canceled German contracts, and Cogema, the French reprocessor, about $4.6 billion.

"There is no reason to pour oil on the fire, but we have every reason to defend our legitimate interests," French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin declared. "Adequate damages will have to be found."

"To be blunt about it," said Trade and Industry Secretary Stephen Byers, "they have got to honor their legally binding contracts."

German nuclear plant operators, meanwhile, see the Jan. 1 reprocessing ban as a sly effort by Mr. Trittin to close them down regardless of any phaseout timetable. Their licenses require them to have adequate storage space for six years' worth of spent fuel, and they would not have time this year to build the additional storage facilities needed for the fuel that they would no longer be able to reprocess abroad. They are asking that any fuel export ban be put off until 2004.

Schrder's announcement on Jan. 25 that the new nuclear energy law would not come before Parliament for another six weeks suggests he is preparing to bow to pressure from the nuclear industry and from London and Paris.

Elsewhere in Europe, nuclear plants appear on their way out, but even more slowly than in Germany. In Britain, plans to build a new generation of advanced gas-cooled reactors have been scrapped. But no moves are afoot to close down any plants before they reach the end of their planned operating life.

In France, the most nuclearized country in Europe, the government has pledged more investment in alternative energy development but remains committed to nuclear power, which provides 78 percent of the country's electricity.

Switzerland has announced it would draw up plans to phase out its four nuclear plants, but has set no timetable.

European governments are fearful of the cost of moving to other methods of generating electricity. Existing technology to harness "alternative" energy sources such as the wind and the sun would not cover the shortfall, and governments cannot resort to coal-fired power stations because they are committed by international treaty to limit emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Gas-fired plants would need to be built from scratch or expanded at considerable investment, and would also leave European countries vulnerable to political upheavals in the Continent's main suppliers of natural gas, Russia and Algeria.

* Lucian Kim contributed to this story from Berlin.

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