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Gas crisis revives Germany's nuclear debate

In reaction to Putin's blackmail, the government coalition is divided on postponing the phaseout.

The possibility of gas shortages this winter has sparked a dispute inside Germany's governing coalition on nuclear energy.

The Social Democrats (SPD) of Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the historically anti-nuclear Greens of Economy and Climate Minister Robert Habeck oppose any postponement to the end-of-year shutdown of Germany's three remaining nuclear power reactors. Nonetheless, the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), who are also part of Scholz's coalition, have joined the conservative opposition in pressing for a postponement of this nature.

Christian Dürr, the president of the FDP parliamentary group, stated why in a tweet on Tuesday: "Putin remains unpredictable. We should take precautions: stop generating electricity from gas, extend the life of nuclear power plants and examine gas production in the North Sea."

"Safe supply is the top priority," he added. "We have to exhaust all possibilities for this. Anyone who talks about cold showers and warm sweaters in these weeks misunderstands the seriousness of the situation."

Due to its reliance on Russian gas supplies, Germany is susceptible to Kremlin coercion. Russia has threatened to cut off the faucet, and this week's maintenance shutdown of the crucial Nord Stream pipeline has increased worries of a winter fuel crisis.

Dürr's reference to frigid showers was a jab at Habeck, who has been preparing Germans for sacrifices during the impending winter months by recommending that people take shorter hot showers and heat fewer rooms.

The leader of Dürr's party, Finance Minister Christian Lindner, has argued for weeks that keeping Germany's nuclear facilities operational a bit longer should not be "absolutely ruled out." Given the new realities of Moscow's energy blackmail, he believes that the Greens' resistance to the plan is ideological and should be disregarded.

"In view of the current situation, we should take a pragmatic, non-ideological view," agreed FDP lawmaker Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, a prominent voice on the war in Ukraine. "We know that the [nuclear] plants won't run forever but just at this moment, when it's a matter of providing the population with the energy it needs, we shouldn't be ideological."

Three of Germany's six nuclear power plants were shut down in 2017; the remaining three will be shut down by the end of 2022. Following the 2011 catastrophe at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, then-Chancellor Angela Merkel made the decision to phase out nuclear power.

Friedrich Merz, leader of the opposition Christian Democrats (CDU) is exploiting the energy policy cracks in the coalition. "We need energy! Some colleagues in SPD and FDP also see it that way, but it fails because of the Greens," he said on television last week.

Alexander Dobrindt, parliamentary head of the Bavarian sister party of the CDU, compared the Greens to Russian President Vladimir Putin, accusing them of recklessly endangering Germany's prosperity. "Putin turns off Germany's gas and the Greens turn off nuclear power. This virtually provokes a blackout in winter," the Christian Social Union (CSU) legislator told German media this week.

It's difficult

According to economists, the situation is not as clear as it may seem.

Jens Südekum, professor of international economics at Düsseldorf's Heinrich Heine University and advisor to the economy and climate ministry, argued, "This appears to be a phoney discussion."

"The figures tell us that only 16 percent of the gas has so far been used for electricity generation, while process heat [used in industrial production] and heating account for more than 80 percent, and that's where the game is decided," Südekum said. "Nuclear power plants won't help us there, because you can't heat with them."

Habeck echoed that assessment Tuesday: Germany has "a heating problem, not an electricity problem," he said during a trip to Vienna.


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