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Germany's 2009 Election Campaign Goes Nuclear

10:35 AM, Jul 9, 2009 • By ULF GARTZKE
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The German Bundestag elections, set for September 27, are approaching fast, and the campaign is shifting into a higher gear. Faced with abysmal polling numbers hovering in the low 20s, the left-wing SPD party has been desperately trying to find the silver-bullet issue that can turn public opinion in their favor, against the center-right CDU/CSU parties led by Chancellor Angela Merkel.

SPD strategists now seem to hope that a recent minor incident at the Kruemmel nuclear power plant in northern Germany provides them with the perfect opportunity to make their party's opposition to atomic energy a key theme for the 2009 Bundestag campaign. While the SPD supports the phasing-out of all German nuclear power plants by 2021--a policy already instituted by the previous Red-Green government--the CDU/CSU parties want to extend the operating life of the most technologically advanced reactors in an effort to reach Germany's extremely ambitious CO2 emission reduction goals (minus 40 percent by 2020 based on 1990 levels).

To put the CDU/CSU on the defensive, SPD environment minister Sigmar Gabriel--an experienced political operator with a strong populist streak--is now even pushing for the accelerated shut-down of all "older" German nuclear reactors before the current 2021 deadline. Also, to make up for the expected loss of nuclear power capacity, the SPD has even embraced the construction of new coal-fired powered plants. To put it diplomatically, the SPD's energy "strategy" is intellectually dishonest and incoherent as it directly contravenes the country's ambitious CO2 emission reduction strategies (which Mr. Gabriel is heavily championing). German conservatives, in contrast, view nuclear power as a "bridging technology" that plays an indispensable part of the nation's energy sources while the use of renewables is being ramped up and the search for major technological breakthroughs continues.

Recent public opinion polls conducted before the Kruemmel incident indicate that a slight majority of Germans (51 percent) still want to phase out nuclear power while 41 percent are against such a move. The remaining 8 percent are undecided. In this context, however, one must not forget that nuclear energy has already gained significant public support in recent years as more and more people embrace it as a CO2-free source of energy that can also help reduce Germany's dependence on fossil fuels (much of it coming from politically volatile regions). In comparison, just a few years ago, the number of Germans opposed to nuclear energy was running as high as 75-80 percent.