German Chancellor Angela Merkel faced one of the biggest battles of her time in office Monday after announcing plans to put off the date when Europe's biggest economy abandons nuclear power.
"The government yesterday approved a far-reaching and sweeping concept for energy production in the coming decades, making our power generation the most efficient and most environmentally friendly in the world," Merkel said Monday.
"This means that we need nuclear energy, as well as coal, as a bridge technology. I know that many people are very sceptical and critical of nuclear power, and we take these concerns completely seriously."
Opposition parties and environmentalists have vowed to fight the planned extension in the lifetime of Germany's 17 nuclear reactors for an average of 12 years beyond the scheduled shutdown of around 2020.
But calculations in the German media indicate that the last plant will not be switched off until 2040, and critics say that operators may get away with keeping some running for even longer than that.
Environment pressure group Greenpeace called the move "irresponsible."
"The government has missed the chance of the century to come up with a safe energy concept," spokesman Tobias Riedel said.
Merkel, 56, hopes to be able to avoid putting the necessary legislation through the upper house, where her coalition lost its majority earlier this year, but the opposition has vowed to challenge this in Germany's highest court.
Even if the extension becomes law, the Social Democrats (SPD), who with the Greens made the decision in 2000 under former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder for Germany to go nuclear-free, have said they will reverse it if they win power.
Ministers arriving at Merkel's chancellery on Sunday evening were greeted by protestors waving banners and blowing whistles, and a demonstration in Berlin on September 18 is expected to draw protestors from all over Germany.
"I can promise the government a fiery autumn," warned Claudia Roth, co-head of the opposition Greens, while Gregor Gysi, co-head of the far-left Die Linke party, called the extension an "error of the highest order."
With no permanent storage site for radioactive waste in place and fears about a repetition of a disaster in Germany like the Chernobyl meltdown in Ukraine in 1986, polls indicate a majority of voters oppose an extension.
Nuclear power currently generates nearly one quarter of Germany's power, while renewables produce around 15 percent. The remainder comes from fossil fuels like coal.
Volatile oil prices in recent years and the desire to reduce carbon emissions, produced by fossil fuels and blamed for climate change, have resulted in something of a renaissance of nuclear power around the world.
Opponents have accused Merkel, a former environment minister, of being pressured into the decision by the lobbying of energy companies, which will reap billions of euros (dollars) in extra profits from an extension.
"If you conduct one-sided politics for the benefit of nuclear power plant operators, then you can expect protests," said green pressure group BUND, saying there were no "sensible" reasons for the extension.
Merkel says she wants to divert some of the profits into expanding the renewables sector. Shares in the power companies were among the top gainers on Frankfurt's DAX 30 on Monday.
Merkel "has created an election issue. The SPD and the Greens are going to make full use of it in 2011," when Germany holds six state votes, the Die Welt said in an editorial.
But Nils Diederich, political scientist at Berlin's Free University, said that the move might end up boosting the opinion poll ratings of Merkel's coalition, which he said hit a low in July and August.
"Merkel is doing what she has said she would," Diederich told AFP. "It could well happen that voters don't like (the extension) but accept what is happening."
Source: AFP Global Edition