German Greens in uproar over nuclear pledge

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The German government faced turmoil last night as enraged Greens threatened to fight its historic agreement to phase out nuclear power.

The German government faced turmoil last night as enraged Greens threatened to fight its historic agreement to phase out nuclear power.

The euphoria of the "breakthrough" in the early hours after arduous negotiations with the nuclear lobby evaporated yesterday, revealing what many Greens considered a fatal flaw: No time limit has been set for the closure of Germany's 19 nuclear plants, and probably not one will be decommissioned in the lifetime of this "Red-Green" administration.

Billed as a "sensible compromise" by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, less biased observers saw only a cave-in. Shares of the operating companies soared by 4 to 5 per cent immediately upon news of their alleged defeat.

"This is unacceptable," said Antje Radcke, one of the Green party's two co-chairmen. "It looks as though the Greens have settled for long-term peace with nuclear power." Ominously, Ms Radcke vowed to vote against the deal at the party conference that is due to decide on the issue in less than two weeks. A rejection by party members would plunge not only the Greens, but also the coalition into crisis. Without his Green allies, Mr Schröder's government has no parliamentary majority.

Meanwhile the impact of a decision has been undermined by opposition pledges that they will reverse it as soon as they come to power. Roland Koch, one of the Christian Democrats' most powerful regional leaders, said: "It's nonsense to speak about a consensus between government and industry. As soon as the CDU and the Free Democrats win the next election, the consensus will vanish."

The agreement between the government and industry calls for the decommissioning of all nuclear power plants after the 32nd year of their existence. That does appear to be a reasonable compromise, given the government had sought a life-span of 30 years, and the companies were holding out for 35. In theory, the agreement would see the last off them switched off around the year 2021.

But the utilities won an important concession, which will allow them to keep the plants going longer. The crucial figure in the accord is the power output that the industry is contracted to deliver. By shuffling their generating capacity and switching off smaller units, the nuclear industry's lifespan can be stretched beyond 2021.

This is a bitter blow to the Greens, especially to their Environment Minister, Jürgen Trittin. As their electoral appeal wanes, the party was desperate for a demonstration of its effectiveness in government.

Mr Trittin, who only a few months ago, proclaimed the "end of the plutonium industry", is having to eat his words.

Reprocessing of spent fuel into plutonium will continue until the end of 2005, it has been agreed. This is a victory of sorts for British Nuclear Fuels at Sellafield, which has a £1bn contract with Germany expiring at the end of 2004. A second contract, though, giving the Germans an option of more reprocessing until 2014, will not be honoured. BNFL put a brave face on it yesterday, pointing out that Germany was only its second most important client after Japan.

But with Japan and the British nuclear industry also having second thoughts, the sun is clearly setting on this side of Sellafield's business.