The future of nuclear power in Germany looks less bleak following a defeat for the Social Democrat – Green coalition in elections in the state of Hesse on 7 February. The Christian Democrats’ victory deprives the government of a majority in the German upper house, the Bundesrat, making it more difficult to pass controversial legislation.

Following the result the Environment Ministry, headed by Green Party member Jürgen Trittin, one of the architects of Germany’s new nuclear policy, said that it would be examining whether it could push through a bill without approval from the Bundesrat. The nuclear bill aims to pave the way for the closure of the German commercial nuclear industry and would outlaw Germany’s current practice of exporting spent fuel to France and the UK for reprocessing. In January the bill was delayed following demands from both the French and British governments for compensation should the reprocessing contracts be cancelled.

Splits within the German cabinet on the nuclear issue are also beginning to emerge. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has taken issue with his economics minister Werner Müller for suggesting that Germany may return to nuclear power “sometime in the distant future”, saying the electorate had given his government a mandate to phase out nuclear power and he intended to stick to that objective.

Commenting on Müller’s statement, Siemens’ press spokesperson, Wolfgang Breyer said that returning to nuclear power after phasing out the current reactors would be an expensive undertaking. If power plant construction and servicing comes to an end, Siemens would not be in a position to maintain its expertise.

Trittin also reaffirmed the German government’s determination to phase out nuclear power in a meeting with the European Parliament’s Committee of the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Protection. Trittin argued that the shift away from nuclear generation is the first step towards a more efficient and environmental energy structure, focussing on renewables and conservation measures.

However opposition to government plans to close Germany’s oldest reactors before the next election is growing. A demonstration in the town of Stade took place on 4 February; demonstrators demanded that the operating life of the Stade NPP is not reduced from its current timescale of 40 years, which means it should close in 2018. Stade, Obrigheim and Biblis A are the NPPs earmarked for closure by 2004.

Further demonstrations are planned in Bavaria in March to coincide with the next stage of the energy consensus talks between the government and the nuclear utilities, when issues surrounding the operation periods of individual power stations will be discussed. 70% of Bavaria’s electricity is generated by nuclear power. Trade Unions in Germany claim that phasing out nuclear power would endanger 150 000 jobs and cost Dm 100 billion ($56 billion).

Nuclear power is an “energy of the future” according to Adolf Hüttl, chairman of Siemens/KWU nuclear division, despite current political developments. Speaking at the German Nuclear Forum, he said that nuclear power can compete with fossil fuels, including gas, in a liberalised market.

Hüttl also said Siemens intends to continue developing the Franco-German EPR as well as the SWR-1000.