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Nuclear Power? Ja, Maybe

Germany's upcoming election has put an unforgiving light on the nuclear phase-out promised in 2001.

It's election season in Germany, not that you'd know it from walking the streets of Berlin. Elections in most countries are less drawn-out and dramatic than elections in the United States; but Germans in particular seem bored by their own politics. The outcome this year is also not really in doubt: German Chancellor Angela Merkel will probably win another term. Yawn.

But one major issue is up for grabs, which Merkel's re-election could easily change. Germany's nuclear phase-out — the most ambitious retreat from a modern power technology in the world, the crowning achievement of the German Greens — might be reversed.

The phase-out is a law that bans construction of nuclear power plants in Germany and caps the life of any existing plant at 32 years. In practice it means the last plant will go dark in about 2021. The law passed in 2001, under the coalition of Greens and Social Democrats headed by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his deputy, Joschka Fischer, the most successful Green politician in Europe.

Since Fischer's party grew out of grassroots anti-nuclear protests in the '70s and '80s, made urgent by Chernobyl ("Atomkraft? Nein, danke"), the phase-out looked to German Greens like the fulfillment of a very large amount of work.

When Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats won the election — barely — in 2005, they had to cut a power-sharing deal with the Social Democrats, and Schröder's party did the Greens a favor. They made sure a lynchpin of the uneasy new government was to not touch the phase-out law. Every governing coalition in Germany starts with a set of agreements hammered out behind closed doors, and when the chitchat ended, there it was in writing: Challenge the phase-out, and the government dissolves.

Angela Merkel is a physicist by training, and an anti-Communist by temperament; she grew up in East Germany and joined its Christian-minded resistance before the Berlin Wall came down. The phase-out clause didn't seem to chafe at first. Germany was developing alternative fuel faster than almost any rich nation, and Schröder had arranged for a pipeline from Russia to bring natural gas directly to German soil. One way or another, after 2021, Germany's energy demands would be met.

But at the very end of 2005, the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom put the screws on Ukraine over a price dispute. It cut off the flow of gas on New Year's Day, 2006. That was a harsh winter, and people noticed the tactic had something Soviet about it, or something mafia-like. Politicians and commentators across Europe glanced at then-President Vladimir Putin (who's ultimately in charge of Gazprom) and called him "ghoulish." The criticism stuck because Gazprom kept repeating its tactic: In mid-winter, to settle price disputes with drifting, post-Soviet satellite governments, just shut off the gas.

Merkel has no love for Putin, who once spied in East Germany for the KGB and speaks fluent German. She started talking about nuclear power again. She never challenged the phase-out in formal terms, but she's made no secret about her preferences; and in 2007, during her stint as president of the European Union, she promoted the ambitious but arbitrary clean-climate goal of "20 by 2020" — cut greenhouse gases by 20 percent by the year 2020.

Also on, how an expert in nuclear power safety soured on the energy source and turned to solar.

Suddenly Berlin was in a bind: How could it make up the loss of nuclear power and promise to reduce greenhouse gases by about 2021? Russian gas? Nein, danke. Add to these pressures the traditional cozy relationship of the nuclear lobby with Merkel's Christian Democrats, and it's easy to see what may happen after the election on September 27, if her party wins convincingly enough to govern without the Greens or the Social Democrats.

Polls say she probably will. Merkel's main rival, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is now her foreign minister. He's an affable but unexciting Social Democrat, a holdover from the Schröder administration, who's had trouble igniting the German electorate, never mind campaigning against his own boss from the awkward position of a cabinet post. He may be the dimming face of the nuclear phase-out dream, the last smiling chance to keep the law in place.

The Greens have one last hope, though — the fallibility of Europe's nuclear technicians. Germany's disastrous, leaky salt mine known as Asse II — which may yet collapse on thousands of barrels of low-level radioactive slop — has become a political football, and a pair of emergency shut-downs at the Krümmel nuclear plant near Hamburg, where the Swedish energy giant Vattenfall seems to have trouble adhering to its own safety standards, has reawakened German anti-nuclear protest.

But the incentive to keep the plants open is strong. Big energy firms see nuclear power as a cash cow, since the power stations are largely paid for, and shutting them early will seem (to the practical Ms. Merkel) like a waste. The obvious compromise is not to end the phase-out but to extend the legal lifespan of the plants — "until we can completely replace them," as a conservative minister of the environment in the state of Bavaria, Markus Söder, has put it, "with regenerative technology."

Which is still a long way off.

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