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Nuclear power back on German political agenda

BIBLIS, Germany (Reuters) - The vat of still blue water containing enriched uranium rods at Germany’s oldest nuclear plant looks as harmless as a public swimming pool.

Nuclear fuel elements are seen in the bearing basin in reactor block A of a nuclear powerplant in Biblis. The vat of still blue water containing enriched uranium rods at Germany's oldest nuclear plant looks as harmless as a public swimming pool, betraying the risks of nuclear power generation. REUTERS/Alex Grimm

But the stifling heat in the domed reactor building and the sight of workers in orange jumpsuits with Geiger counters, white gloves and layers of plastic covering their feet betray the risks of nuclear power generation.

Oxygen masks hang on the walls of the earthquake-proof reactor building and on leaving the area in RWE’s Biblis plant in southwestern Germany, visitors are subjected to two body scans for radioactive contamination.

The risk underlined by these precautions partly explains why Germans have for decades nurtured an aversion to nuclear, which supplies just under 30 percent of power needs compared with 80 percent in France, the world’s leading nuclear nation.

The industry is growing globally and other European nations including Britain and Finland are reviving nuclear. But Germany -- where about half the power comes from coal -- has so far stuck to a 2001 law to phase out nuclear reactors by 2021.

The ground is shifting, however: oil prices which have risen fivefold since 2001, fears about energy supply security and the need to curb carbon dioxide emissions have boosted support for nuclear in Europe’s biggest energy-consuming state.

The issue will be significant in September 2009's election, when nuclear-friendly conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel will fight the anti-nuclear Social Democrats SPD.L with whom she has shared power since 2005.

“It’s a very emotional topic and people, including politicians, don’t always base their arguments on fact,” said Reinhold Gispert, head of the works council at Biblis.

Data shows German reactors are safe -- they have a low rating of incidents on a scale set by the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

“We maintain and modernise all the time so we really can say the plant is safe,” said Juergen Haag, chief engineer and deputy head of Biblis.

Although there is no prospect Germany will build new nuclear stations, there are signs some closures could be put on hold.

CHANGE OF COURSE?

Two plants have been decommissioned and there are 17 more to go, but public opinion could nudge lawmakers towards a change.

A survey last month by pollsters Emnid showed 52 percent of Germans support later decommissioning for atomic plants, up from 49 percent in March.

“There’s been movement but the question is if the ball will move forward more,” said Gispert of the Biblis works council. “For us it’s about jobs, lives and families.”

Biblis has an installed capacity of 2,500 megawatts of electricity and its turbines, whose deafening roar resonates through its building, produce power for 6.5 million households.

Its two reactors, opened in 1974 and 1976, are due to close in 2009 and 2010. Haag says they could run for 60 years and RWE is waging a court battle to win a reprieve until 2013 by seeking to transfer quotas of power produced from another RWE plant which closed before it had used up its full allocation.

Beyond that, the future of the roughly 1,000 workers at Biblis and thousands more across Germany who work for the other operators -- E.ON, Vattenfall and EnBW -- depends on a change of heart from lawmakers.

The issue is hardest for the SPD, which introduced the phase-out law when it ruled with the Greens and forced Merkel’s conservatives to stick with it in their 2005 coalition deal.

A generation of West German Greens and Social Democrats made their careers leading protests against atomic power in the 1970s and 1980s, especially after western Europe felt the effects of the world’s worst nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986.

“Any change would be extremely hard for the SPD, whose rank and file would resist,” said Bernhard Wessels, a political analyst at Berlin’s Free University.

Warnings from environmental groups about the risks of civilian nuclear technology being hijacked by rogue governments or terrorists -- and the tricky question of what to do with nuclear waste -- give ammunition to the anti-nuclear lobby.

Germany has stepped back from solving the question of waste by suspending research into a possible permanent storage site in a northern state. Sceptics redoubled criticism when a separate temporary depot for low-level waste was found to be leaking.

“An option for the SPD would be to make it a social issue and say nuclear would bring down energy costs,” said Wessels.

Some estimates put nuclear power production costs at 2 cents per kilowatt hour, cheaper than power from coal or gas and less than a quarter of the cost of fashionable wind energy.

GREENER?

Pressure to meet climate change goals could also provide political impetus and there are signs the SPD is open to ideas.

Former SPD minister Erhard Eppler broke a taboo in July by suggesting his party could agree to extend the lives of plants as an interim step while renewable energy is developed.

Germany aims to meet EU targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels as well as a self-imposed goal to have renewable sources accounting for 30 percent of the country’s energy from about 14 percent now.

Even modern coal-fired plants, still being built, have high carbon dioxide emissions.

Merkel’s conservatives have proposed putting the closures on ice if operators pay some 40 billion euros to develop renewable energy. The firms, which could each earn more than 1 million euros per day for each plant that stays open, are open to the plan.

But in the end, the prospect of shortages may be decisive.

Experts warn of power supply gaps if the nuclear switch-off goes ahead. Stephan Kohler, head of government energy agency Dena argues that by 2020, Germany could be short of 15 large thermal power plants, or 12,000 MW.

“Nuclear power is not ideal but it is the only parameter which can help us get through the next 10 years,” said Fritz Vahrenholt, a wind energy pioneer who led turbine maker REpower and is now head of RWE’s renewable unit RWE Innogy.

Editing by Sara Ledwith

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