Battle of Gorleben boosts Greens' leverage

Nuclear industry faces extinction as Social Democrats are forced to espouse the environmental cause, writes Imre Karacs in Bonn
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The Independent Online
Germany's opposition parties rushed to renounce nuclear power yesterday as police mopped up the debris of their most expensive waste disposal operation since the war.

The fallout from the Battle of Gorleben blew into the political arena, poisoning the air between Greens and Social Democrats, but also threatening to engulf the governing coalition in acrimony.

As a result of the public outcry over the cost of escorting six caskets of radioactive waste to their crypt, Gorleben will probably never receive another consignment, and the industry faces extinction.

"The dinosaur technology of nuclear power has no future," declared the Social Democrats' environment spokesman in the Bundestag, Michael Muller, in a stunning U-turn.

"Gorleben has shown again that there is no majority in the Federal Republic in favour of nuclear energy." The consensus, Mr Muller added, is for "exit from nuclear power in the medium term, if not earlier".

The Social Democrats, while never enthusiastic about nuclear energy, had until now accepted it as a necessary evil. However, growing public disquiet about the disposal of radioactive waste, and the ever-improving electoral performance of the Greens, are forcing Germany's biggest opposition party to espouse the environmentalist cause.

Their sudden conversion has failed, however, to mask fundamental enmities that bedevil the relationship between the two left-wing movements. Ostensibly future coalition partners, the Reds and the Greens were yesterday at each other's throats, clashing in the parliament of Lower Saxony.

The regional government ruling over Gorleben and its embittered hinterland is in Social Democrat hands. The 30,000 policemen and border guards sent in to defend the nuclear convoy this week against mostly peaceful environmentalists received their marching orders from this authority. Lower Saxony's Prime Minister, Gerhard Schroder, is a pro-business Social Democrat; a friend of industry who treats the Greens with contempt.

But early next year Mr Schroder comes up for election, and the polls suggest that he will not be able to form a government without the help of the Greens. This in itself is a compelling reason to persuade him that allowing another shipment to Gorleben this time next year might not be wise, but being re-elected in Lower Saxony is also a prerequisite for Mr Schroder's greater ambition: to be the next Chancellor of Germany. The national arithmetic, again, shows that the Social Democrats will not be strong enough to govern alone in Bonn.

Mr Schroder would rather go to bed with Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats than be rushed into a shotgun wedding with the Greens, but if Mr Kohl stays on, this option will not be open. A Red-Green coalition appears to be the only choice, cemented by the environmentalists' traditional hostility to nuclear energy, now endorsed by the Social Democrats, and their common craving for power of the traditional kind.

The greening of the Reds has also led to the abandonment of another industry rich in tradition and Social Democrat votes. Last night the government was finalising plans to cut back coal subsidies, currently amounting to DM10bn (pounds 3.6bn) a year; a programme the Social Democrats have pledged to support, despite the pit closures that will follow.

On the day that the nuclear waste reached Gorleben, at an estimated cost of up to DM100m, 3,500 miners at the last colliery in Gelsenkirchen in the Ruhr received their redundancy notices.

With every mining job costing the taxpayer DM100,000 a year, it could be argued that without Gorleben 1,000 unemployed miners would still be working. But that arithmetic, balancing as it does two forms of energy that have become politically incorrect, never entered anybody's equation.