Skyrocketing fuel prices are leading more and more Germans -- including one prominent member of the Green Party -- to challenge the country's cherished plan of mothballing its 17 nuclear power plants.
A few years ago, it would have been unthinkable for a Green party member to resign over the party's inflexibility about decommissioning atomic power plants.
But that's exactly what happened on Monday, July 13, when Margareta Wolf, a former member of parliament and deputy party spokeswoman, announced she had severed her ties with Germany's Green Party.
In an official statement, Wolf said she was quitting because of the Greens' intransigience by insisting on simultaneously phasing out nuclear power and freezing the construction of new coal-burning plants.
"My party has maneuvered itself into a strategic dead-end on this issue, from which it will only emerge if it returns to an objective, non-romanticized debate and starts an open dialogue that doesn't defame every thing that gets voiced," Wolf wrote.
She also accused the party of "losing relevance" and pursuing policies that "bordered on the dumbing-down of the public."
Green party co-leader Reinhold Buetikofer was quick to downplay the decision by Wolf, who resigned her parliamentary mandate in 2007 to work for a communication consulting company with connections to Germany's nuclear power industry
"She was no longer a Green politician," Bütikofer told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.
That may be true, but what once was a done deal -- Germany's commitment to phasing out all of its nuclear power plants by 2021 -- has re-emerged as a hot-button political issue.
Conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel and other influential members of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) have recently stepped up criticism of that agreement, reached by the Social Democrats and the Greens in 2000. They have questioned whether Europe's biggest economy can afford to shut the nuclear plants as oil prices soar and countries such as France and the UK opt to build more reactors to cut carbon-dioxide emissions.
Phase-Out on the Way Out?
Germany's influential Der Spiegel magazine featured the re-opened debate about nuclear energy in its first title story in July, and most other German media, from broadsheets to tabloid to television, have also been devoting considerable attention to the topic.
This does not seem to be a case of TV and newspaper editors struggling to fill headlines and air-time during the slow summer months. Public opinion is also turning toward re-examining the nuclear option.
In a poll commissioned by the German public television station ARD early in July, only 51 percent of those surveyed approved of the phase-out, while 44 percent disapproved -- compared with 58 and 36 percent in a survey conducted only seven months before in December 2007.
Some have suggested that Germany's existing nuclear power plants be allowed to operate longer, or that the country even start planning new ones.
Rightly or wrongly, the swing in sentiment is almost surely the result of the record high prices for oil being set on a nearly daily basis and the commensurate pinch many Germans are feeling at the gas pumps.
With the 2009 national elections rapidly approaching, it's a trend that has the potential to redefine Germany's political landscape.
Challenge or Opportunity
The party with the most at stake in this issue is the Greens, and it is taking the questioning of the nuclear consensus seriously.
Ironically, the debate may help the Greens, currently the smallest of Germany's three opposition parties, by mobilizing those with strong anti-nuclear views.
"This is good for the Greens," Deputy Party Spokesperson Joerg Althoff said. "Voters know that they have to vote Green in order to rule out a return to nuclear energy."
There is scant chance that the Greens will fundamentally change their position since the party itself originated in the anti-nuclear ecology movement of the late 1970s and early '80s.
"It's about branding," Rüdiger Robert, a political scientist at the University of Muenster said. "They would give up a major piece of their identity."
Experts like Robert see the Greens' major problem not in their commitment to the nuclear phase-out and renewable energy sources, but in their plans about how Germany can fill the gaps as more and more reactors go off-line.
Germany's 17 active nuclear reactors currently produce a quarter of the country's electricity. The Greens' own 2020 plan says that Germany's energy needs can be met by raising efficiency in energy use by 16 percent.
But they have a long way to go before 2009 to convince the electorate that that vision is realistic.
To achieve their aims, or perhaps just preserve what they consider their achievements, the Greens need the cooperation of one of the larger parties. And their traditional coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD), are engaged in an internal debate of the nuclear issue.
Former SPD Economics Minister Wolfgang Clement has been sharply critical of the phase-out, and Green party insiders admit to feeling nervous about the Social Democrats' commitment to the agreement they jointly negotiated in 2000.
For the time being, though, the SPD is likely to keep their current position.
"Opinions within the SPD differ, but I'm sure they'll stick with the phase-out," Robert said. "Their constituency would be unlikey to reward a change of position."
There has also been lots of speculation about the conservative CDU campaigning on the issue against both the Greens and the SPD next year.
"It's difficult to predict," Robert said. "Issues can gain momentum. It's certainly within the realm of imagination since it would be a populist topic."
Germany isn't changing course yet. But it is currently trying to sort out whether it can afford to keep an anti-nuclear pledge that has been a source of pride for many Germans in the past few years.
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