BERLIN/HALTERN AM SEE Germany's opposition Greens have softened their stance towards utility companies, agreeing with powerful trade union IG BCE that they should not have to bear alone the costs of the country's exit from nuclear power.
A government-appointed committee chaired by Green ex-environment minister Juergen Trittin is trying to decide how to apportion the costs for the decommissioning of plants and the storage of nuclear waste.
The utilities are already struggling with a steep fall in wholesale power prices and the union and others have argued against burdening them with excessive costs for fear of driving them out of business.
Germany's last nuclear plant will be shut down in 2022 and it is feared that the 39 billion euros ($43 billion) set aside by the big four utilities - E.ON, RWE, EnBW and Vattenfall [VATN.UL] - will be insufficient.
"We'll be talking about a sum that limits the burden on taxpayers but also secures the survival of the companies," Greens leader Simone Peter told Deutschlandfunk radio.
Michael Vassiliadis, head of mining, chemicals and energy trade union IG BCE, told journalists: "You shouldn't kill the goose that lays the golden eggs."
According to a draft report from a government-appointed committee seen by Reuters on Monday, Germany is willing to shield the utilities from the risk of rising costs linked to the nuclear exit.
A meeting on Friday between the chiefs of the four utilities and the head of the commission failed to produce an agreement on the latest sticking point of who will pay for the storage of nuclear waste, meaning that their next meeting on Monday will not be the last, as had been planned.
Germany also needs a plan for how to exit coal-fired power generation, which still accounts for around 40 percent of electricity generated in Germany and is viewed as an important pillar for stable power supply.
Vassiliadis proposed that funds to pay for Germany's eventual retreat from coal power generation could be built up by allowing coal plants to continue operating for 15 years after the nuclear exit, which he said should be profitable.
"This money should stay in the system and not be paid out as dividends," he said. "That's the basic idea."
Vassiliadis said he had held initial talks with politicians about this idea but not yet with the utilities.
He added that such a plan could help Swedish utility Vattenfall sell its lignite power plants and mines in eastern Germany, which it aims to do in the first half of this year, by removing uncertainty about future costs.
(Reporting by Markus Wacket and Matthias Inverardi; Writing by Georgina Prodhan; Editing by Gareth Jones)