German energy companies move to extend nuclear plants' lives

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Berlin - Germany's oldest nuclear power plant still in operation was to have been shut down for good in autumn next year. That date was determined not so much by the plant's age - Biblis A went onstream in 1974 - as by a political decision taken in 2000 to phase out nuclear power completely by around 2021.

In terms of the relevant legislation passed two years later, each of Germany's 17 nuclear plants was allocated a block of remaining operating time.

Now owners RWE have announced that Biblis A is to undergo a 125- day inspection next year, during which it will go offline.

That shifts the final shut-down date for the pressurized water reactor (PWR) in the state of Hesse into 2010 - and thus past the date for the next German parliamentary elections.

RWE spokesman Frank Staude made no attempt to conceal the company's main aim.

"An inspection lasting several months is nothing unusual, but it is also clear that we can gain operating time afterwards," Staude said.

"Behind this decision is maintaining Block A at a technical level that would permit us to continue to operate it if the politics allows us to."

RWE, along with other energy companies E.ON, EnBW and Vattenfall, have long sought to extend the operating lives of their older nuclear plants but have run into adamant opposition from Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel.

Gabriel has instead offered to extend the lives of the newer plants in exchange for shutting down older plants earlier, on the basis that the 10 plants that went online after 1981 are safer.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's broad coalition government is bound by a coalition deal struck after the September 2005 elections to continue with the phase-out.

But the Christian Democrat (CDU) leader has made plain she believes the decision is "absolutely wrong" and that the nuclear plants should be allowed to continue operating for longer.

Sensing a change in public opinion in favour of nuclear power, the CDU and its Bavarian CSU sister party are calling for a change, although voices in favour of building new nuclear plants remain muted.

Recent polls suggest Germans are roughly evenly divided on the issue. This stands in marked contrast to the 1990s, when in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, a clear majority backed abandoning nuclear power.

Rising energy prices and fears of increased dependency on Russia for oil and gas have contributed to a change in sentiment, as have concerns on climate change.

Gabriel's ministry now accepts that all four nuclear plants that would under normal circumstances have been shut down by autumn next year will continue operating past the elections.

Gabriel's Social Democrats (SPD) are sticking by the phase-out, decided when they were the dominant party in a coalition government with the Greens, although there are rumblings within the party.

The Greens, currently in opposition, remain firmly against. Juergen Trittin, environment minister at the time of the phase-out decision, this week pointed to the costs as well as the environmental dangers.

"No new nuclear power station has been built in the US since the 1970s," Trittin told public television. "There are reasons for this. Nuclear power is not only very dangerous, but also very, very expensive."

No company would build nuclear power stations under normal market conditions. "It only works with subsidies," he said.

And he laid into companies like RWE. "They earn well from their old plants which have been written off, producing electricity for three or four cents a kilowatt-hour and selling it for 10 cents or more."

Current opinion polls provide no clear guide to the outcome of next year's election. Merkel's CDU/CSU, together with their preferred coalition partner, the liberal FDP, are hovering just below the 50- per-cent mark.

If this centre-right constellation can boost its support, RWE and the other generating companies can bank on extending the lives of their nuclear plants.

Amid a rising debate, the nuclear issue could yet prove a key factor in next year's election.

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