Kuhnt prepares for battle

30 November 1999

The German government must allow waste transports or four nuclear power stations will have to shut down next year. This is the stark warning of Dietmar Kuhnt, RWE’s president and chief executive officer, who made a combative defence of nuclear power in his speech to the company’s annual general meeting in Essen.

“There is now a risk that the first four plants will have to be shut down next year because of disposal problems,” said Kuhnt. “At RWE, unit B of the Biblis plant would be affected.” The transport blockade has been in place since May 1998 when some casks were found to have radioactive hot-spots on them. It has led to a backlog of 150 shipments in Germany and is making nuclear generation increasingly difficult.

Kuhnt warned that premature closure of the country’s nuclear power stations would involve “considerable damage to the economy and a destruction of capital for which there is no economic justification.” “We are committed to nuclear power for both ecological and economic reasons,” he said. “A phase out without compensation can only occur within the framework of normal capital expenditure cycles. In return, we expect a solution to the disposal issue and, of course, hassle-free application of the legislation.” The consensus talks between the government and the utilities have been suspended since the summer and although they are due to resume in December there appears to be little chance of an agreement. The government had given industry a year to propose a compromise solution, but the utilities have not done so and the government must now decide how it intends to proceed. It has threatened to introduce legislation forcing the nuclear plants to close without offering the utilities compensation. If this happens the utilities are likely to take the issue to the constitutional court.

“Should we incur damages as a result of phase-out legislation or the need to shut down a nuclear plant because of the ban on nuclear fuel shipments, we will avail ourselves of any and all remedies available under our legal system, including compensation,” said Kuhnt.

The issue has been a major source of conflict within the government. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who heads the Social Democrat Party, wishes to avoid a confrontation with the utilities, whereas his Green Party coalition partners see the nuclear issue as the reason for their existence. A proposal by the economics minister Werner Müller to phase out plants after 35 years operation was dismissed by the Greens, who want plants closed after 25 years. There is speculation that Schröder is close to a deal with the Green Party that would see the government push to close three plants before the next general election in 2002, with the last plant closing in 2016.

Since the Social Democrat / Green victory in the September 1998 general election, both parties have suffered a series of defeats in local and state elections. The government needs to establish a united front on the nuclear issue to gain public credibility before regional elections next spring.

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