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.
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views itself as a leader in the global debate on both climate change and nuclear energy, nuclear power is considered an outdated 20th-century technology.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.
On the other side, while Germany's utilities officially have agreed to quit the nuclear-power business, the Bush administration's renewed interest appears to have encouraged plant operators. In a radio interview a week ago, Gert Maichel, president of the pro-nuclear Atomic Forum, suggested a future government could reverse the agreement.
"Every law can be changed one day," adds Christian Wilson, spokesman of the Atomic Forum in Berlin. "That's what Maichel meant. In the US, atomic energy is being reassessed. In France, nuclear power is relied on heavily."
Critics have charged that a "nuclear-free" Germany may simply end up importing reactor-generated electricity from neighbors such as France. Others suggest that German utilities agreed to shut down their atomic power stations because they would not have survived anyway in the European market. "The liberalized electricity market doesn't allow for the longterm planning necessary for the enormously high capital investments of nuclear energy," says Haas. He says many utilities are moving toward small power stations that can react quickly to market fluctuations.
The German zeitgeist is not on the nuclear industry's side. In light of protests against a controversial new nuclear plant in the neighboring Czech Republic, the German utility giant E.ON recently announced its intention to terminate a contract for Czech electricity.
Consumers here already have the option of choosing whether the current from their wall sockets is produced by renewable or traditional energy sources. Some experts are drawing up plans to "label" electricity.
To cover domestic-energy needs for the short and medium term, the German government is promoting new technologies with conservation and the expansion of cogeneration, a technique that involves turning waste heat from natural-gas-driven power plants into useable energy.
"I'd say not to focus the question exclusively on the replacement of [nuclear] plants, but to see it in connection with the entire energy policy in Germany, which is also concerned with climate protection," says Manfred Fischedick, an expert on future energy sources at the Institute for Climate, Environment, and Energy in Wuppertal.
In the longer term, Berlin has set ambitious goals to boost energy production from renewable sources. The government wants this sector to account for 10 percent of total energy production by 2010 - and 50 percent by 2050.
An unpopular "eco-tax" is meant to encourage conservation and investment in alternative energy by making fossil fuels expensive. Last year, the government passed a law on renewable energy, which, for a time, fixes the price of electricity from alternative energy sources such as wind, water, and the sun. Environmentalists have argued that nuclear power has long benefited from state subsidies, and that if the industry were required to insure itself in full against a major accident, atomic energy would become unprofitable. Environmentalists also maintain that fossil fuels are heavily subsidized, directly and indirectly, by governments around the world.
If there's the political will, says Mr. Fischedick, expanding renewable-energy sources is feasible, but Germany still would have to rely on imports. In 35 to 40 years, he envisions Europe's grid of "eco-electricity" stretching from hydroelectric plants in Scandinavia to solar farms on the Mediterranean.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor