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Nuclear heats up German election campaign

July 8, 2009

A technical fault at a German nuclear power station has thrown a spotlight on one of the few issues that divide the two main parties before September’s election — atomic energy.

But the anti-nuclear Social Democrats (SPD), who have shared power with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives since 2005, may be disappointed if they had hoped to win votes from it.

Merkel, forced to accept a phaseout of Germany’s atomic plants under its coalition deal with the SPD, is campaigning on extending the lifespan of nuclear plants which are deemed safe.

By contrast, the SPD is committed to the phaseout which it introduced in a previous alliance with the Greens, and Saturday’s failed restart at the ageing Kruemmel plant in northern Germany has galvanised some of its members into action.

The SPD, trailing Merkel’s conservative camp by more than 16 percentage points and at risk of losing its role in government, is trying to do all it can to mobilise its traditional supporters before the Sept. 27 vote.

SPD Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel pounced on the incident, swiftly taking to the airwaves to push his case that the phaseout should be accelerated. And on Wednesday a Berlin newspaper was strategically leaked a government statement, albeit from 2006-07, which said safety standards at older plants like Kruemmel were not as high as at more modern reactors.

Germans have for decades nurtured an aversion to atomic energy, which supplies just under 30 percent of their power needs.

But as other European countries have started to revive nuclear, opinion has started to shift due mainly to higher energy prices and fears about supply. Pollsters say Germans are now pretty evenly split on whether to support a later decommissioning of plants.

In their campaign manifesto, conservatives argue nuclear is an important part of the energy mix, at least until renewable sources are fully commercially viable.

“If the SPD tries to make this a big election topic, it will not have much success. Public opinion is moving towards an acceptance of atomic energy,” said Klaus-Peter Schoeppner, head of Emnid pollsters.

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