Schroder ready to close all nuclear plants

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CHANCELLOR GERHARD Schroder was close to a deal last night with his Green coalition partners on the timetable to close all of Germany's 19 nuclear power plants.

The issue has bedevilled the Red-Green government and an agreement would go a long way towards restoring the parties' fortunes. But Mr Schroder can also expect bitter denunciations from the power lobby, who will argue that the Chancellor has performed yet another U-turn, selling out his friends in industry for a semblance of government unity.

Phasing out nuclear power would be a severe blow to the industry worldwide, as it would trigger similar demands in other Western nations. Britain would be faced with the likelyloss of Sellafield's pounds 1.2bn contract to reprocess spent German fuel rods.

Secret discussions have been going on in Berlin for weeks, after the companies running nuclear plants would not yield to the proposals.

The two parties had committed themselves to a gradual phase-out negotiated with industry. With that process faltering, the Greens threatened to walk out of the coalition and scupper Mr Schroder's government.

The deal, according to the newspaper Berliner Zeitung, would see three plants closing in the life-time of the current legislature, with the last one shut soon after 2016.

This formula is a long way from Green ambitions. Jurgen Trittin, the Green Environment Minister, had proclaimed the "end of the nuclear age", only to be forced to retract by Social Democrat colleagues.

Mr Trittin drafted a law in record time, without consulting the Chancellor, and was on the verge of placing an immediate ban on reprocessing before Mr Schroder intervened. Mr Trittin was reined in, though, only with the explicit promise that the utilities would have a year to offer a settlement.

The companies have not done that, and the year will be up in the middle of December.

Joschka Fischer, the Foreign Minister, seen as endowed with more diplomatic skills than Mr Trittin, entered the fray. It is he and Mr Schroder who have been haggling for several weeks, cutting out minions on both sides. Both need a solution in a hurry.

Having given up their dreams for an "ecology tax" and other environmental causes, the Greens could not be seen to be yielding any more ground. The threat to pull out of the government if no plant is shut was not an idle one.

The government's divisions have also hurt the Social Democrat party and Mr Schroder, who is outshone in the popularity stakes by even Helmut Kohl. With crucial regional elections due in the spring, the government is desperate to gain a common purpose.

The proposed deal is not the final word. Industry claims it would be entitled to tens of billions of marks in compensation. But those who produce nuclear power are more likely to come back to the negotiating table if confronted, for once, with a government that is united in its resolve.