German Pushes Alternatives to Nuclear Energy

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Germany is facing a self-imposed energy crunch. Alternative sources such as wind, solar and biothermal energy are supposed to replace nuclear power, which is being phased out by 2020. However, some Germans believe they are neither adequate nor better for the environment.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Even as the world confronts higher oil and gas prices, Germany is facing a self-imposed energy crunch. The country is due to phase out all its nuclear plants by 2020. Alternative sources like wind, solar and biothermal energy are supposed to replace nuclear power. However, some Germans believe these sources are neither adequate, nor better for the environment. NPR's Rachel Martin reports.

RACHEL MARTIN reporting:

The German North Sea coast near the village of Holtgast is a patchwork of cabbage fields, farm houses and towering clusters of whirring white wind turbines, about a thousand of them stretching like a rotating white barrier all along the coast. Manfred Kanaka(ph) is an elementary school teacher who's lived here for 30 years. Binoculars in hand, he surveys the misty coastline from the top of the seawall and points to the expanse of marsh lands.

Mr. MANFRED KANAKA (Elementary School Teacher): These used to be resting places, too, for birds, but they're now abandoned. We have a few ducks, that's all. We had geese here by the thousands, but one mill, no geese.

MARTIN: Kanaka tried to stop the wind farm from being built here 10 years ago. Although Kanaka ran for parliament in 1979 as a candidate for the environmentalist Green Party, he says the turbines are loud, ruin the landscape and are not a solution to Germany's energy problems.

Mr. KANAKA: Wind power is not a means to supply us with stable and reliable electricity. That's the problem, see. It's a symbol. It's a big symbol for a so-called alternative, which it is not.

MARTIN: But for the past seven years, the coalition government of Social Democrats and Greens have been touting the potential of wind power and other renewable energies to replace nuclear power. Germany has built more than 16,000 wind turbines across the country. They now provide roughly 5 percent of the country's electricity. The government also passed a law to close down the country's remaining 17 power plants over the next 15 or so years. Milan Nitchka(ph) is from the German Renewable Energy Foundation.

Mr. MILAN NITCHKA (German Renewable Energy Foundation): Most people understand that we need wind energy in Germany. OK, I can't understand it if you have a house and out of the window, there's a windmill--a big windmill. I don't know if I would be so amused about it. But we have to change from big coal plants, from nuclear waste to secure and clean energy.

MARTIN: But the Greens are now out of power, and it's unclear whether the new coalition government, led by the conservative Christian Democrats, will stick to the previous energy strategy. Some Green Party leaders are concerned the new government may delay or even reverse the nuclear phase-out altogether, but many conservatives are worried about the country's growing dependence on Russia, which supplies most of Germany's natural gas. They also think nuclear power would make it easier for Germany to meet its commitments to the Kyoto Treaty, which requires the country to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases. Christian Vuestner(ph) is a spokesman for the nuclear industry group, the German Atomic Forum.

Mr. CHRISTIAN VUESTNER (German Atomic Forum): The Germans don't love nuclear. So far, that's clear, and you have to be honest about that. But the discussion, especially regarding on the Kyoto process, on security, on supply, on prices, it's getting more and more an objective in the public of Germany.

MARTIN: Nuclear power still provides 30 percent of Germany's energy, and that poses a dilemma for many Germans, including Manfred Kanaka, the former Green from the north coast.

Mr. KANAKA: We do have a need for a power supply which is regular and which is reliable, and the atomic power does that; even if I oppose it, it still does it. You have to admit that. If you cut this power supply, you'll have the industrialized Germany put it on--at risk. They have not enough power anymore.

MARTIN: Energy has been a major issue in negotiations to form a new coalition government. Green Party leaders say any attempt to delay the phase-out of nuclear power would create its own environmental problems and reignite a divisive political debate over the future of Germany's energy policy. Rachel Martin, NPR News, Berlin.

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