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Tina Gerhardt

Tina Gerhardt

Posted: September 27, 2010 11:00 AM

Last week, between 40,000 and 100,000 people took to the streets of Berlin to demonstrate against German Chancellor Angela Merkel's recent decision to extend the life span of Germany's 17 energy-producing nuclear reactors by 12 years, on average, beyond the expiration date of 2021, which had been agreed upon by the previous center-left (Social Democrats-Green) coalition in 2002.

Merkel's decision has reignited Germany's anti-nuclear movement. A poll conducted last week by ZDF television found sixty-one percent of Germans oppose the plan of Merkel's center-right coalition of Christian Democrats (CDU) and Free Democrats (FDP). Last week's protest was the largest anti-nuclear demonstration since Chernobyl in 1986, an event that some of the protestor's signs - stating "Never again Chernobyl" - referenced.

And the demonstration last week is only the beginning. In November, over sixty organizations and thousands of activists will gather in Gorleben, Germany to stop trains from delivering nuclear waste. Although actions take place year-round at Gorleben, they reach their peak every fall when spent fuel is sent there for temporary storage.

Located amidst rolling cornfields about 146 miles west of Berlin, the tiny village of Gorleben has a population of around 600. It currently serves as a temporary storage facility for spent nuclear fuel, but plans are afoot for a nuclear waste repository deep underground in its salt dome. (Gorleben is to Germany what Yucca Mountain is to the U.S.)

The demonstrations in Gorleben date back to the 1970s and culminated in the establishment of the short-lived Free Republic of Wendland in 1980, named after the region. Within a month, then Chancellor Helmut Schmidt had demonstrators cleared out by force, their buildings - constructed with building materials often donated by sympathetic area farmers - razed, and the area fenced off. The repression only galvanized the movement. And this year marks the Free Republic's 30th anniversary.

In Germany, the anti-nuclear movement - which like the UK's Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament began in the 1950s - has already had enormous impacts. It was one of the catalysts leading to the establishment of the Green Party in 1979 and in its early days worked with organizations to address the primary environmental concerns of the 1970s, such as pollution, acid rain and nuclear weapons.

The renascent movement, energized by the urgency of climate change, argues that it is entirely feasible - financially and technologically - for Germany to secure its energy needs solely from renewable sources but only if the federal government invests in it. In the estimation of some, Germany is at an energy tipping point or crossroads, where it must decide either to continue funding nuclear energy and coal or to switch to a smarter grid and renewable energy, such as solar and wind.

In a press release this summer, the German federal government's own Advisory Council on the Environment (the Sachverständigenrat für Umweltfragen or SRU) SRU stated that "By 2050, Germany's energy needs can be supplied 100% through electricity derived from renewable energy sources," however, "the federal government must set the course for the conversion of the energy system now." And with regard to nuclear and coal power, it added "for the transition period, neither renewals for nuclear power or for new coal-fired power plants are desirable." Germany's Federal Environmental Agency (Umweltbundesamt or UBA) holds a similar position.

What promises to be particularly effective about Germany's burgeoning anti-nuclear movement is the range and configuration of actors involved. Eighteen groups organized last week's demonstration, ranging from environmental groups and trade unions, such as the metalworker's union IG Metall, Germany's largest. In its speech, the metalworkers' union demanded a transition to renewable energy and renewable energy jobs.

And not only does the movement involve groups organizing demonstrations and upcoming actions, for example, at Gorleben, it also encompasses parties jockeying for political power while seeking to enact policies that address climate change. Political parties were not among the official organizers of the demonstration, but heads of each party - Sigmar Gabriel (Social Democratic Party), Claudia Roth (Green Party) and Gesine Lötzsch (Left Party) - were in attendance.

Gabriel - former Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (2005-2009) and supporter of the International Renewable Energy Agency - has called for Germany's constitution to be amended, allowing for a referendum on nuclear energy. Yet it is likely to happen, given that changes to Germany's constitution always invoke the origins of the Nazi era, the move will kindle the momentum against nuclear and for renewable energy.

The SPD and the Green Party also intend to challenge the government's decision in court, arguing that the federal government did not consult the Bundesrat (the Federal Council), which represents Germany's sixteen states at the federal level.

Renate Künast, head of the Green Party in the Bundestag (Lower House of Parliament), said in an interview with Der Spiegel that the Green Party would use "all possible means, including legal challenges, electoral campaigns and demonstrations" to challenge Merkel's policy.

Merkel's decision was reached in consultation with Germany's four main power companies - EnBW, E-ON, RWE and the German subsidiary of Sweden's Vattenfall - which operate Germany's 17 nuclear plants. Frustration and anger about Merkel's decision boiled over this week when the Sueddeutsche Zeitung revealed that Merkel's governing Christian Democrat and Free Democrats coalition intends to have the nuclear disposal sites operated by the four private companies. Last year, E-ON, RWE and Vattenfall were the three biggest CO2 emitters in Europe.

The SPD and Greens have vowed to repeal any nuclear extensions passed by Merkel, if they return to power in the next 2013 election. In recent opinion polls, the SPD and Green Party have surged ahead of the center-right parties, propelled by their campaign against nuclear energy. In a study published on Wednesday, the Green Party and the SPD had twenty-four percent each. (Merkel's CDU has slid to twenty-nine percent.) It remains to be seen if this fall's planned direct actions, continued demonstrations and political willpower will shift Germany's energy grid away from nuclear and coal, and towards renewable sources. It certainly has the momentum.