Germany To Nix Nukes

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and the bosses of Germany's nuclear power plants agreed Thursday on a plan to end the country's use of atomic energy, clinching a deal that has eluded Schroeder's center-left government for more than a year.
At an early morning news conference, Schroeder announced that both sides had compromised on how quickly the phase-out would take effect, with the government allowing two extra years of running time. That means Germany's last nuclear plant would go off-line in about 20 years.

Industry leaders said they regretted the early closures. "But we accept the primacy of the political system," Ulrich Hartmann, chairman of the Veba utility, said after four-and-a-half hours of talks.

Schroeder came into office in late 1998 promising to negotiate an end to nuclear power in Germany—an issue especially dear to the hearts of his junior coalition partner, the environmentalist Greens party.

Germany's 19 nuclear plants provide almost a third of the country's electricity. But the country also has a big anti-nuclear lobby that regularly targets shipments of nuclear fuel or waste with massive, sometimes violent protests.

Schroeder, a Social Democrat, initially said his government would legislate plant closures after a year if a voluntary deal couldn't be reached with plant operators.

But the negotiations dragged on over 18 months and were marked by bickering between the partners over how quickly the plants should be forced off-line.

The final deal allows a total life span of 32 years for power plants, Schroeder said. He did not say exactly when the last nuclear energy production will end. But the newest German plants came on line in the late 1980s, which means their 32 years should be up around 2020.

Before Thursday's deal was reached, Greens party lawmakers had suggested that the first two nuclear plants could be shut down before the end of the current legislative period in 2002.

The conservative opposition, however, has threatened to block any deal in the upper house of parliament, where the states are represented.

Conservatives accuse the government of ignoring potential job losses and costs to states like Bavaria and Baden-Wuerttemberg—both conservative-led—that are major shareholders in public utilities.

They also argue that scrapping nuclear power would create other problems by forcing Germany to use other fuels to produce electricity, keeping the nation from meeting targets for reducing air pollution.

Schroeder has said he believes a nuclear phase-out law could be formulated in such a way that it did not require approval in the upper house.

But the Bavarian state government said Wednesday it was already preparing a complaint to bring to the Constitutional Court if Schroeder tries to push through a deal.

By PAUL GEITNER