Business backlash against nuclear phase-out begins

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Business lobbies are pushing for EU action to examine or derail Germany's planned exit from the nuclear power club after the Fukushima disaster.

BusinessEurope, the powerful employers' group, sent a letter to EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger on 10 June, demanding an EU impact assessment into the phase-out's likely effect on costs.

"Energy prices are on average already higher in Europe than in many of our major trading partner countries," the missive says.

EU support is thus needed "to mitigate this serious handicap for the competitiveness of European industry, which will be exacerbated by the German nuclear phase-out," it says.

The group cites a study by the German Federation of Industries which found that a nuclear phase-out by 2017 would increase energy bills, possibly across European borders.

As a result BusinessEurope "deems it necessary" that an assessment be carried out, and the issue be "explicitly addressed" in the EU's 2050 Energy Roadmap this autumn.

But Julian Scola, a spokesman for the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA), insisted that renewable energies were competitive.

"In the UK, the recent climate change committee's report showed that onshore wind is considerably cheaper than nuclear energy," he told EURACTIV, adding that energy was a national competence.

"It is perfectly legitimate for Germany to phase out nuclear power," he said. "It will create thousands of new renewables jobs and help make Europe more competitive in the growing global renewable industry."

Campaign against nuclear phase-out

There were signs that the BusinessEurope letter was part of a campaign.

On 15 June, Enn Veskimägi, the chairman of the Estonian Confederation of Employers, echoed the group's concerns after a BusinessEurope meeting.

"The German government's decision to start closing the nuclear plants in the state on one hand runs counter to European Union climate policy and on the other it raises costs for energy-intensive producers," he said.  

Three weeks earlier, on 23 May, BusinessEurope's director-general, Philippe de Buck, told the Bundestag's Committee on the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety in the European Parliament that there should be a balanced response to the Fukushima disaster.

He stressed the importance of technology in the transition to a low-carbon society, and said that emission reduction targets should be economically feasible, with due consideration given to the competitiveness of European industry.

In Germany, the newspaper Die Welt reported that other aspects of Chancellor Angela Merkel's planned energy shift could also face multiple legal objections in Brussels.

A proposed incentive programme for more efficient and flexible power plants will be put under the microscope for infringements of competition legislation, the paper said.  

The European Commission could also forbid targeted compensation payments to smaller energy-intensive industries known as 'Stadtwerke'.

"The envisaged support programme for power plants appears incompatible with the European Commission's environmental aid guidelines," said Ulrich Karpenstein of Berlin law firm Redeker.

On 30 May, Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government voted to shut all its nuclear reactors by 2022, in reaction to Japan's Fukushima disaster. The coalition agreed to keep the eight oldest of Germany's 17 nuclear reactors permanently shut.

Seven were closed temporarily in March, just after the earthquake and tsunami hit Fukushima. One has been off the grid for years. Six more reactors will be taken offline by 2021. The remaining three reactors, Germany's newest, will stay open for another year until 2022 as a safety buffer.

Juergen Grossmann, chief executive of the biggest power provider, RWE, has lobbied for nuclear plants to stay open longer, arguing a quick exit would cost energy-intensive industry dearly and could threaten Germany's industrial base. Before Merkel shut down the oldest plants for three months, Germany got 23% of its power from nuclear plants.

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