Back from the Dead

Europe's scramble for nuclear energy is making for radioactive politics.

At the dawn of the 21st century, nuclear power appeared to be drawing its last breath across much of Europe. Italy had shut down its last reactor in 1990. The Netherlands had closed one of its two reactors in 1997, and the other was set to cease operating in 2003. The Austrian parliament had voted in 1997 to keep the country nuclear-free; the Belgian government followed six years later with a move to rid itself of nuclear power by 2025. Sweden planned to complete its nuclear phaseout by 2010. And the center-left government in Germany, Europe's largest economy, introduced the Nuclear Exit Law in 2000, which mandated the end of nuclear power in 20 years.

Each country, it seemed, was taking its turn driving the nail deeper into nuclear energy's coffin. But the nail didn't hold.

Ten years later, nuclear power is staging a comeback in Europe, capped by German Chancellor Angela Merkel's announcement this month that her center-right administration was overturning the nuclear phaseout and permitting reactors to remain operational into the 2030s. Under the new policy, which resulted from lengthy negotiations with utility companies, nuclear plants will be allowed to remain in operation for an average of 12 years beyond their current shutdown dates -- eight years for plants constructed before 1980 and up to 14 years for those built afterward. In exchange, the operators of Germany's 17 nuclear plants will pay a combined 2.3 billion euros in annual fuel-rod taxes and contribute to a renewable-energy fund. Merkel and the plan's supporters argue that the nuclear extension will allow the country to retain a clean and affordable energy supply until the renewable-energy industry is more fully developed.

Europe, of course, is not the only place where a nuclear expansion is taking place -- China, India, and other Asian countries are rapidly expanding their nuclear capacities, and any major energy policy to emerge in the United States will almost certainly contain generous loan guarantees for nuclear construction. But in Europe -- where Chernobyl still looms in the background, where green activism is at its strongest, and where nuclear power until recently seemed to be on its way out -- the reversal is by far the sharpest. And there's anger in the streets.

Germany's green activists have charged that Merkel has simply sold out to the utilities, and tens of thousands of them took to the thoroughfares of Berlin on Saturday, Sept. 18, to protest her decision. The state governments in Germany have likewise threatened a constitutional challenge, asserting that their representatives in the upper house of parliament should have veto power. And the leader of the opposition Social Democrats, Sigmar Gabriel, pledged to reverse Merkel's reversal if his party is voted back into power in 2013 and has called for a constitutional amendment to allow for a referendum on the future of nuclear energy in Germany.

Yet Germany's about-face, while perhaps the most dramatic, is hardly the only recent shift in favor of nuclear energy in Europe. After Silvio Berlusconi's election as prime minister in 2008, Italy announced plans to build up to 10 new nuclear reactors, starting by 2013. Last October, Belgium -- which gets more than half of its electricity from nuclear power -- pushed back the start of its nuclear drawdown to 2025. And this June, Sweden -- which in 1980 became the first country to pass a nuclear phaseout law -- overturned its moratorium on new nuclear construction, allowing power companies to replace old reactors with new ones.

Likewise, Russia is constructing three new nuclear plants and has plans for 27 more; Belarus is building its first plant; Turkey is planning to construct its first three reactors; and Slovakia hopes to complete two new plants in 2012 and 2013. France, the only Western European state where nuclear energy has remained consistently popular, continues to draw more than three-quarters of its electricity from nuclear power -- the highest proportion in the world.

Europe turned increasingly to nuclear power in the 1970s as the oil crisis drove energy prices to record highs. But then sinking energy costs and two nuclear meltdowns -- at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 -- convinced many Europeans that a major investment in nuclear power wasn't worth the costs, or the risks. Sweden imposed a moratorium on new reactors after Three Mile Island; other countries, like Germany and Italy, committed to phasing out nuclear power after Chernobyl.

"Chernobyl was the straw that broke the camel's back," says Hans-Holger Rogner, section head of the Planning and Economic Studies Section at the International Atomic Energy Agency. Still, he argues, the shift away from nuclear energy was shortsighted -- eventually, higher energy prices and the need for reliable domestic power sources would force a re-evaluation of nuclear power. That's finally starting to occur.

"There's recognition that the volatility of fossil [fuel] prices is probably going to stay," Rogner says. "We won't be going down to $40 oil anymore." Although nuclear reactors are expensive to build, they are relatively cheap to operate, giving countries like Germany an incentive to keep existing plants online as long as possible.

Additionally, he said, after 24 years without a major nuclear accident, people's safety concerns have been partially allayed. Budget shortfalls stemming from the economic crisis have also made nuclear deals like those struck in Germany and Belgium, which will send billions of euros from electric utilities to government coffers, particularly appealing. And with European countries looking to slash their carbon emissions over the coming decades, nuclear power might be a necessary form of clean energy until renewables like wind and solar are more fully developed.

Indeed, Merkel has painted the nuclear extension as a "bridge" to a renewable-energy future and has argued that the funding for renewables research and development that electric companies will provide as part of the compromise is critical to getting green energy projects off the ground. But representatives of the renewables industry disagree.

Ulf Gerder of the German Wind Energy Association says that Merkel's new nuclear policy would "completely stop" the progress of renewable energy in Germany. "In 2020, [wind power] could provide a quarter of Germany's energy needs," he argues, if the right policies are in place. "This policy won't do it."

Germany, the world leader in wind energy production before it was recently passed by the United States and China, has created 320,000 renewable-energy jobs in the past 20 years, according to Gerder. But without "complete certainty" of government support for the industry, private investment in renewable energy will founder.

Opposition from the renewables industry is only one of a slew of obstacles to a true nuclear renaissance in Europe. Sixty-one percent of Germans oppose Merkel's nuclear extension plan, according to a poll conducted last week by ZDF television. Likewise, a poll this year showed that only 20 percent of Italians support an expansion of nuclear power.

In Germany and Sweden, left-leaning opposition parties have vowed to overturn the recent pro-nuclear measures if they're voted back into office. This political uncertainty could undermine the whole nuclear effort, says Rogner.

"As long as there's no firm government policy, there will be no private-sector investment in this technology," he explains. "If you have a situation in which every four years things may change, you will have no nuclear power, unless it's funded entirely by the states."

There is also no coordinated European Union nuclear policy, leaving national politics to dictate the fortunes of nuclear energy on the continent. "By the [Lisbon] treaty [amending the EU constitutional structure], we cannot tell them, 'Do this or do that,'" says Marlene Holzner, a spokeswoman for the European energy commissioner. "They are free to do it. The only exception is that they have binding targets for renewable energy, but other than that we cannot interfere."

Still, Rogner points out that even if certain countries revert once again to anti-nuclear policies, nuclear energy could continue to thrive simply by crossing borders. If Germany decides to shut down its reactors, for example, German utilities could build new plants in more nuclear-friendly countries like Poland or the Czech Republic -- with new grids to ship electricity across borders.

For now, all indications are that nuclear power will live far beyond its previous expiration date in Germany and throughout much of Europe. This dawning reality has sparked protests by anti-nuclear activists across the continent. At Sept. 18's rally in Berlin, massive crowds marched through the streets in and around the Regierungsviertel, or government quarter, chanting and blowing vuvuzelas in a show of support for renewable energy and opposition to nuclear power. Organizers of the demonstration claimed a turnout of 100,000; police estimated it at 40,000. In either case, it was the largest anti-nuclear demonstration in Germany since the aftermath of Chernobyl.

Claire Labigne and Uli Agurks, a middle-aged couple from the Odenwald, near Frankfurt, danced through the streets in anti-nuclear regalia. "Sun, wind, water, biomass -- it's all out there," said Labigne, a member of the Green Party. "It doesn't cost anything, and it belongs to all of us. Why wouldn't we use it?" She's convinced Merkel's plan won't hold up. "There's too much opposition," she said. "The Germans are ready to fight."

But Steffen, a man in his late 20s who declined to give his last name, wasn't so optimistic. "Unfortunately, it's not going to change at all," he said with a laugh, as he held a poster depicting Merkel next to Mr. Burns, the evil nuclear power plant owner from The Simpsons. "At least not under this administration."

Meanwhile, Merkel hails her administration's renewed commitment to nuclear power as a "revolution" as Germany's opposition leader mourns "a black day for German energy production." Call it what you will -- it's clear that nuclear power in Europe is back from the dead.

Miguel Villagran/Getty Images


Gitmo Forever

President Obama has found that it's easier to make high-minded pledges to close the notorious prison than to actually get it done.

The population of the U.S. prison facility at Guantánamo Bay dipped last week to 174 as President Barack Obama's administration transferred two prisoners to Germany.

With the latest transfers, the United States has managed since Obama's inauguration to whittle down the number held in the notorious U.S. prison in Cuba by 66.

Still, Obama's pledge to close what he deemed a blot on the legal and moral character of the United States -- and a recruitment tool for Islamist extremists -- is proving exceedingly difficult to fulfill. Administration officials and others who advocate shuttering Gitmo say they worry that a Republican victory in the upcoming midterm elections will make the mission impossible.


A U.S. official said he feared that Republicans would impede steps to close the prison because it has been a signature issue for Obama. The official asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic.

A House Democratic aide, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, added: "It's hard to envision a path forward."

Legislation already in place -- and likely to be renewed -- bars the transfer of Guantánamo detainees to the United States except for the purpose of putting them on trial. The restriction, passed in 2009, effectively dashed administration hopes to transfer 48 detainees to a maximum-security prison in Thomson, Ill. The 48 have been designated for long-term detention because of the nature of their alleged offenses and the lack of evidence against them that is admissible in U.S. courts.

Meanwhile, a provision of the defense appropriations bill under consideration by the Senate would outlaw sending prisoners to countries such as Yemen that have a major al Qaeda presence -- and a poor history of holding on to convicted terrorists. Given that 57 of the remaining detainees eligible for transfer are from Yemen, that provision alone could ensure that Guantánamo remains open for years to come.

"It becomes very hard to bring down the population if it becomes very hard to transfer people or try them in Article III [regular criminal] courts," said Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). He said prospects for closing Gitmo would diminish further "if Republicans gain control of one or both houses."

Shutting the facility was a major issue for Obama during his presidential campaign. In a 2007 speech billed as his first major foreign-policy address, he said the indefinite detention of terrorist suspects there had "compromised our most precious values."

Once inaugurated, he vowed to close Guantánamo within a year. Asked about that pledge at a recent news conference, Obama said, "I wanted to close it sooner. We have missed that deadline. It's not for lack of trying. It's because the politics of it are difficult."

One of the ironies of Obama's predicament is that George W. Bush's administration released more than 500 Guantánamo detainees, sending many back to their countries of origin. About 10 percent have returned to the ranks of al Qaeda or other terrorist groups; another 11 percent are suspected of having done so, according to U.S. officials.

"Bush made a serious error sending some of them back," said Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee and a vocal opponent of shutting Guantánamo. "Twenty percent is not a bad recidivism rate for car thieves and bank robbers," but not for terrorists, he said.

(Of those released by the Obama administration, however, only one detainee -- an Afghan known as Abdul Hafiz or Abdul Qawi -- has rejoined jihadi ranks, the U.S. official said.)

Bond said Guantánamo was "the best and most humane place to hold" suspected foreign terrorists. He dismissed arguments that the prison remains a major recruitment tool for al Qaeda, saying, "any place we hold detainees is going to be alleged to be a torture facility."

In addition to Republican opposition, the White House has had to contend with civil liberties groups that want Guantánamo closed but oppose moving prisoners elsewhere for indefinite incarceration.

"Our concern with Gitmo is more about the policy than the geography," the ACLU's Anders said.

The administration has stumbled in its efforts to try high-profile detainees such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Plans to put him on trial in a criminal court in New York City faltered because of local opposition; the administration has yet to come up with a consistent formula for military tribunals to handle other hard cases.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) complained Monday, Sept. 20, that the administration has no legal framework for dealing with terrorist suspects. "Democrats are scared to death to talk about this," he told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute. "And most Republicans just demagogue it."

Given this situation, the State Department has worked incrementally to release as many detainees as possible, looking to Europe in particular to shoulder the burden. Of the 174 still at Guantánamo, 60 detainees have been vetted by U.S. intelligence, the Defense Department and the Justice Department, and were approved for repatriation or resettlement in other countries.

A small State Department office under Daniel Fried, a former assistant secretary of state for European affairs, has been methodically negotiating transfers. As of Sept. 21, the tally of countries that have taken in detainees from the prison is available here.

The latest to leave are being resettled in Hamburg and the southwestern German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière told the Associated Press that the two had asked not to be identified for their own protection. However, a London-based organization called Reprieve said one was Ayman al-Shurafa, a Palestinian born in Saudi Arabia who had spent nearly nine years at Guantánamo and suffers from depression.

De Maizière said Germany, which took one inmate in 2006, has "made its humanitarian contribution to closing the detention center."

The State Department's Fried, who declined an on-the-record interview, has called his job "miserable" but indicated that he will stick with it as long as he can continue to transfer detainees.

John Moore/Getty Images