Representatives of Germany’s four utility holding companies with nuclear assets walked out of consensus talks with Chancellor Gerhard Schröder on 9 March. The walkout was in response to government plans to introduce taxes on decommissioning funds, increase liability provision by a factor of 10 and introduce greater rigour in safety checks at nuclear plants. New tax laws, including the increase in tax liability provision, were passed by the German upper house, the Bundesrat, on 19 March. The DM 50 billion ($28 billion) fund that the nuclear industries have built up to address decommissioning and waste management will now be taxed at 52%.

“It is a scandal because the law was drafted by a failed finance minister and passed with the help of a failed regional government in Hesse,” said Manfred Petroll, of the Deutsches Atomforum. The Red/Green coalition lost elections in Hesse in February, but this is yet to be reflected in the make-up of the Bundesrat.

The Green Party environment minister, Jurgen Tritten, has also drafted a new bill following the collapse of his initial plan to outlaw reprocessing of spent German nuclear fuel by the beginning of 2000. Reprocessing will now become illegal once interim storage sites are built at Germany’s reactor sites.

However the situation in Germany regarding nuclear power is highly fluid, with the government in a state of disarray following the resignation of finance minister Oskar Lafontaine on 11 March and opinion polls showing the government’s popularity 10% lower than at the election last September. Trittin is looking increasingly isolated following criticism by Schröder for pursuing his anti-nuclear agenda without government approval. Schröder has called for “more Fischer and less Trittin” in Green party policy. Oskar Fischer is foreign minister and represents the pragmatic arm of the Green party.

The departure of Lafontaine has been widely seen as a victory for the pro-business arm of the SPD, headed by Schröder. But it is likely to further damage relations between the SPD and their Green partners. Trittin said that Lafontaine’s departure deprived the government of its impetus for reform.

“Red-Green as a reform project is dead,” he said in an interview with the German magazine, Stern. “At best we have a collection of common interests with the SPD.” He also said that the Greens could just as easily form an alliance with the opposition Christian Democrats.

The widespread disorder within the Government is leading many Germans to the conclusion that the coalition will collapse before it is a year old, with either the formation of a grand coalition with the CDU or another election. Fallout from Lafontaine’s departure is likely within the SPD; many members believe Schröder is undermining the party’s core socialist beliefs and it is possible that Lafontaine may return to challenge Schröder’s control of the party.

Within the German nuclear industry a sense that the government will not be able to close plants early is growing; demonstrations, including one with at least 20 000 marching through Bonn, are adding pressure to a government that has promised to bring down unemployment. Many delegates at the KONTEK waste management conference held in Hamburg between 15 and 17 March, expressed the opinion that the Government’s plans for the industry are not possible in practice, particularly if Germany has any ambition to meet carbon dioxide reduction targets. The chaos within the government is reinforcing the optimistic view.

Dr Manfred Sappok, managing director of nuclear waste management company Siempelkamp, said at KONTEK that the industry should focus on winning over public opinion. The successful completion of the transportation of waste is likely to be a key moment.

“If the Greens accept transportation and license movements, opinion will change,” he said. Three cargoes of nuclear waste are planned to be moved from the power plants at Gundremmingen to the interim storage site at Gorleben in July.

A further development is the introduction of European law in May 2000 which will bring many new activities under radiation controls, including airlines and the fertiliser industry.

“It will change the minds of people because they will see that there is radiation everywhere,” said Sappok. “The nuclear industry must point this out. The only way is to talk to people and explain.”