By Mark John
BONN - Four little words in the election manifesto of the incoming Social Democrats have set the stage for what could be the longest game of poker between industry and politics that Germany has seen.
Pledging to abandon nuclear power "as quickly as possible", the victors of Sunday's election have committed themselves to turning the country's energy sector upside down, but have left a question mark hanging over when and how.
The SPD knows the nuclear industry will fight tooth and nail. But it also knows the environmentalist Greens party, whose manifesto calls for an immediate exit from atomic power, will demand specific commitments in return for support in government.
"We want to do this with as little friction as possible," Social Democrat (SPD) energy expert Michael Mueller told Reuters on Thursday.
"But we're confident we'll do it."
Encouraged by billions of marks of government subsidies, Germany's nuclear industry has blossomed since the 1960s into one of the largest in the world.
Under the government of defeated Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the nuclear share of West Germany's energy use soared to nearly 40 percent by 1989. Unified Germany's 19 atomic power plants provide the country with a third of its energy needs.
But dogged campaigning by a large anti-nuclear lobby and recent revelations of radiation leaks from nuclear waste containers have turned public opinion against the power form.
The political and social consensus in Germany is now, possibly for the first time, against nuclear fuel. But whether it will take Germany four or 40 years to become nuclear-free is another matter.
"Ideally, it would be immediate," said Wolfgang Juettner, environment minister in Lower Saxony, the SPD-ruled north German state where Schroeder is outgoing state premier.
"But that's just not feasible," he added.
Germany's nuclear energy providers are in a strong position. Not only does the country rely on them for a large part of its fuel, but the licences handed out for power plants have no time restriction.
Thus compensation settlements for closing existing plants will be worked out on the basis of how much working life they have left - with some having around 45 years to go.
"Our position isn't bad," said Otto Majewski, head of Bayernwerk, the Viag unit that is one of Germany's main nuclear fuel providers.
"Forced shutdowns ahead of time would trigger compensation payments in the three-digit billions of marks," he warned at an event in Munich earlier this week.
The industry has got other cards up its sleeve.
Playing on SPD election promises on unemployment, it points to the 40,000 jobs at risk if the industry is wound down.
Throwing ecological arguments back at the Greens, it also points out that substituting nuclear power for carbon-based forms could endanger Germany meeting agreed targets for C02 emissions.
Schroeder, who has been reported as saying six of the country's oldest reactors can be shut down by 2002 in a long-term plan that could take up to 30 years, has called for discussions with industry about how to handle the upheaval.
SPD and Greens politicians have suggested offering "carrots" in the form of subsidies to adopt other, renewable energy forms.
"Scrapping nuclear energy would go hand in hand with ecology taxes," said Greens budget expert Oswald Metzger, saying the proceeds from higher taxes on fuel could be used for this purpose.
But energy firms say such offers miss the point and argue that any anti-nuclear policy endangers investments that have already been made.
"We are already developing reactors with France to replace the old ones. Money has already been put into this," said Wolfgang Breyer, spokesman for Siemens KWU energy division.
"Germany cannot simply act in isolation," he added, adding that next February's partial liberalisation of Europe's energy markets made going it alone all the more difficult.
The SPD's Mueller argues on the other hand that liberalisation might also mean the end to subsidies currently available to nuclear industries in other countries, thus making the power form less attractive.
SPD-Green coalition talks over the next few weeks will make clear how serious Germany's next government is with its new energy policy. Reaching agreement there will be enough. But when it takes that plan to industry, the fireworks could really start.
"We'll seek a consensus. But how can you have a consensus when the bones of contention are rock hard?," asks Mueller.
ReutersTOKYO - Japan's state-run nuclear research body, tainted by a series of accidents and ensuing cover-up attempts, made a fresh start late last week under a new name, fresh management and with fewer missions.
Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute (JNC) has made its debut as a new entity to spearhead the nation's ambitious nuclear fuel cycling programme, replacing its predecessor, the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corp (PNC).
The nuclear fuel cycling programme aims to extract reusable uranium and plutonium from spent nuclear fuel, and use them at conventional light water reactors and fast-breeder reactors (FBRs), which create more fuel than they consume.
JNC has succeeded PNC's three core fields of research and development - FBR construction and operation technology, technology pertaining to disposal of high level radioactive nuclear waste, and spent nuclear fuel reprocessing technology.
Three other projects carried out by PNC - uranium enrichment, development of advanced thermal reactors, and overseas uranium mining, will be wound down within a few years.
"PNC was criticised for its closed-door policy, lack of management and inflated operations," said an official for the Science and Technology Agency, which supervises the development of Japan's nuclear technology.
"JNC will do a better job with new board members, a new committee to promote information disclosure, and fewer and well-focused missions," he said.
Japan, which relies almost entirely on imports for its oil, plans to increase dependency on nuclear power to diversify its sources of energy and to enhance energy security.
However, accidents at PNC facilities and its handling of the incidents has caused public trust in nuclear power to crumble.
Prototype fast-breeder reactor Monju on the Sea of Japan coast, the centrepiece of the nation's nuclear fuel cycle programme, had a coolant leakage accident in December 1995.
The research body came under fire when it was later revealed that PNC officials had kept secret a videotape of the accident scene in an effort to play down the seriousness of the incident. Monju has since been closed.
In March last year, a fire and explosion accident at another PNC facility, a spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant on the Pacific coast, exposed 37 workers to low levels of radiation.
PNC was yet again criticised after revelations that it had submitted falsified reports on the accident to the government.
Japan now has 51 commercial nuclear reactors, supplying one-third of the nation's electricity supplies. It aims to boost electricity output from nuclear power plants to 45 percent of total power needs by early 2011.
HELSINKI - Finnish opposition leader Esko Aho said in an interview in business daily Taloussanomat on Thursday that he opposes building more nuclear power in Finland.
"My opinion is that it would be wise for Finland to refrain from building more nuclear power," the paper quoted Aho as saying.
Finland currently has four nuclear reactors at two plants, and industry wants to build a fifth reactor.
Parliament has banned additional nuclear power and the five-party left-right-green government has agreed not to raise the issue during its term which ends next year.
Nuclear power is expected to be an important topic in campaigns ahead of elections next spring, and Socialdemocratic Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen on Wednesday called for debate on the issue.
HELSINKI - Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen on Wednesday welcomed the option of more nuclear power in debate about the future energy supply.
Finland currently operates four nuclear reactors at two plants.
"It is good that nuclear power has been brought out as one of the future energy options, and probably the time has arrived to return to this topic," Lipponen told economics and business journalists.
Finnish parliament in 1993 banned building more nuclear power and after taking power in 1995, Lipponen's five-party left-green-conservative government decided not to reopen debate in the legislature during its term, which ends in March 1999.
But in an energy policy report last year, the government said building more nuclear power should not be ruled out in the future, although alternative sources should be studied. Finland is exploring opportunities particlarly in natural gas.
Representatives of various industry lobbies and some unions have recently advocated building more nuclear power capacity, anticipating political debate on the issue ahead of next year's general elections.
Lipponen expected debate on the issue, but said it would not form a watershed between the main political parties.
KIEV - Hundreds of workers at Ukraine's five nuclear power plants paraded through the centre of Kiev in white smocks, caps and face masks on Tuesday to demand months of unpaid salaries.
"Wages! Wages!" shouted the workers as they massed outside the government headquarters and demanded to see Prime Minister Valery Pustovoitenko. No one emerged from the building.
The workers normally take home monthly salaries equivalent to about $100, more than twice the average in impoverished post-Soviet Ukraine. Many said they had not been paid for up to seven months and suggested safety could be compromised.
"How can you expect a man in charge of complex equipment to keep his mind on his job if he is worried every minute about how he is to feed his family?" said Igor Karanedo from the Zaporizha plant, Europe's largest with six reactors.
The workers are among millions of Ukrainians who go without pay for months because of blockages in the financial system.
First Deputy Energy Minister Mikhail Umanets, who watched demonstrators outside the government building, said blockages stemmed from unpaid power bills equivalent to $480 million.
"There simply is no money in the system to pay these people," he told Reuters. "They are in effect providing their services for nothing."
Ukraine's 14 nuclear reactors, including one still functioning at the stricken Chernobyl plant, provide about 40 percent of power in Ukraine, a fact not lost on the protesters.
Many carried signs reading: "Ukraine without nuclear power is like a man without a heart" or "Without nuclear, life will shut down in Ukraine."
Workers said they survived by the traditional Soviet and post-Soviet means of gardening to provide for their families.
"We would have been out on the street months ago if not for the potatoes from the garden," said one mother of four.
BEIJING - China has begun building its first fast neutron reactor power station as part of a plan to meet the country's energy needs in the next century, the Xinhua news agency said on Tuesday.
The power station would be the pilot for building China's first commercial fast neutron reactor.
The reactor is believed to be more efficient and safer, Xinhua quoted Li Zhongpin, deputy director of the China fast reactor engineering headquarters, as saying.
The power station is in Fangshen county, on the outskirts of China's capital Beijing.
Completion of the station was scheduled for December 1999 and trial power generation would begin in 2003, Xinhua said but did not elaborate.
China currently has two nuclear power plants, at Daya Bay near Hong Kong and at Qinshan in eastern Zhejiang province.
China needs to develop its nuclear power generating capacity to 240 million kilowatts by 2050, roughly 20 percent of total generating capacity, to avoid power shortages in the next century, Xinhua said.
By Natalie James
TORONTO - The province of Quebec, already a major exporter of hydro-electric power, will next week become the Canadian leader in wind-driven electric power.
The first seven of 133 windmills will start turning in the first week of October at the C$160 million Le Nordais Wind Farm, perched on the blustery north coast of the Gaspe Peninsula in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
The "farm" of 55-metre (180-foot) windmills can produce 100 megawatts, enough to power 16,000 households, making it the largest such development in Canada.
"Only about four other projects in the world were built to be this size," said Yvan Dupont, president of Axor International Inc. the privately owned Canadian member of the consortium building Le Nordais.
The group, which also includes MEG Micon of Denmark and Japan's Nichimen Corp , several years ago won a 25-year contract from Hydro-Quebec to generate wind power at 5.4 Canadian cents a kilowatt-hour.
Le Nordais will be among other wind-energy plants around the world that now produce a total of about 8,000 megawatts. The project brings Canada into a growing club that includes the United States, China, India and various European countries.
The largest such projects in Canada to date are in the wind-swept western prairie province of Alberta, which can generate 21 megawatts.
Dupont said he hoped that if the windmill farm is successful, the Canadian government, like other nations, will start to fund development of wind energy.
The remote Gaspe Peninsula is an ideal site because of its strong and steady winds.
With Quebec accounting for more than half of Canada's wind energy potential, Axor hopes to build more sites that can produce up to 3,000 megawatts, Dupont said.
Hydro-Quebec hopes the project will complement its extensive system of dams, which produce most of Canada's hydro-electric power, said Jean Hudon, the utility's executive in charge of contracts with independent power producers.
"Wind and hydro go hand-in-hand," Hudon told Reuters. "If there are good winds then you can shut down some of your hydro-electric production."
For Hydro-Quebec, the project also represents an attempt to stay competitive in an energy market leaning more toward renewable energy, he noted.
U.S. energy regulators plan to require that a portion of any electricity sold to customers there must be generated by renewable sources of energy, but they do not consider hydro power in this class.
Costs at Le Nordais are substantially below the 10-20 Canadian cent per kilowatt-hour recorded in such projects in other countries.
"This project shows that wind energy can be produced at cost-effective prices," Hudon said.
Although the cost is above the 3.0 cents per kilowatt-hour of hydro-electric power, Dupont said he believed that increased demand for such power would eventually reduce the cost.
He said this is because of the large number of countries that last year signed the Kyoto environmental treaty, which seeks to cut greenhouse gas emissions in coming years.
($1 US = $1.51 Canadian)
LONDON - AEA Technology Plc of the UK is part of an international consortium that won a contract to help clean up the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the Ukraine, the Independent newspaper reported on Thursday.
The contract, worth around $5.0 million, involves improvements to the steel and concrete shelter covering the damaged Number 4 reactor, which caught fire in 1986 causing one of the world's worst nuclear accidents.
AEA, a science and engineering services group that was spun off from the state-owned Atomic Energy Authority two years ago, is a 25 percent shareholder in the consortium, which partners France's SGN and JGC Corp of Japan.
No one at AEA was immediately available for comment.
British Nuclear Fuels Ltd and U.S. partner Morrison Knudsen also said earlier this month they had won a multi-million dollar deal to help monitor the reactor's sarcophagus and begin design work to make both the outside shell and the reactor inside environmentally safe.
Cost estimates for shoring up the increasingly fragile sarcophagus - partly funded by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) - have been pegged by experts at around $760 million.
Chernobyl's Number 4 reactor exploded in April 1996, sending a vast cloud of radioactive dust over parts of the Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and western Europe.
BRUSSELS - The European Union's energy chief has said he is opposed to increased use of nuclear power as a means of curbing emissions of the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.
The European nuclear industry argues that nuclear power is a "clean" alternative to fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas, which generate the powerful greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) when burnt.
"There is an argument from the nuclear industry that nuclear power is a renewable source of energy. I don't accept that," European Energy Commissioner Christos Papoutsis told Reuters.
"I don't believe the Council (of EU Ministers), the European Commission or the European Parliament are ready to promote nuclear energy," he added.
Papoutsis was responding to suggestions from his second in command, Pablo Benavides, that without some reliance on nuclear power the 15-nation EU would not be able meet its international commitments to bring curb greenhouse gas emissions.
The EU pledged at world climate change talks in the Japanese city of Kyoto last December to bring output of CO2 and five other greenhouse gases down to eight percent below 1990 levels by 2008-1012.
"Without the nuclear industry we can forget about fulfilling out Kyoto targets. As long as the nuclear industry represents 33 percent of (power) generation in Europe, we cannot just leave it aside," Benavides told Reuters.
Papoutsis said he did not believe Benavides would repeat his comments when he represented the EU's executive Commission at a meeting of European nuclear industry representatives later this month. "He knows my views," the Commissioner said.
Papoutsis said the Commission could not force EU member countries to abandon nuclear power if they chose to use it, but he said the EU executive would do what it could to encourage them to switch to renewable sources of energy such as wind, wave and solar power.
"That is our priority," he said.
Papoutsis is due to present proposals for promoting renewables to a meeting of EU energy ministers on December 15. The proposals will suggest ways of increasing access to the grid for electricity produced from renewable sources without distorting competition.
European Environment Commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard said last week she was opposed to an increase in nuclear power as a means of curbing CO2 emissions. "You do not solve one problem by creating another," she said.
Benavides said he would tell the European nuclear industry meeting, "The credibility and the future of the nuclear industry depend on two essential things: nuclear safety and waste management".