Schroeder faces mountain of obstacles over nuclear power

BONN, Jan 28 (AFP) - German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder may have won time to begin phasing out the country's nuclear power plants, but he still faces a mountain of legal and technical problems.

Forced to abandon the deadline of January 1 next year for halting the reprocessing of nuclear fuel, Schroeder has to steer a tricky course between the energy companies and his ecologist allies in the government.

He also has to find a way to get out of the reprocessing contracts with the British and French treatment centres without paying huge sums in compensation.

On Wednesday the draft law on ending nuclear power generation went back to the relevant ministries to be rewritten, following Schroeder's announcement after talks with energy industry chiefs. Instead of coming before parliament on Friday, as planned, it will now not be ready until March 3.

Government spokesman Uwe-Karsten Heye dismissed the setback as "a slight delay, because of the complexity of the subject," but analysts said it was inevitable if the negotiations with the industry had any chance of succeeding.

Diplomats said that in putting off the deadline for the end of reprocessing Schroeder had angered the Greens, but given himself more time to find a negotiated solution to the problem.

The chancellor conceded that more storage facilities in Germany would have to be built to take more than 100 trainloads of untreated waste fuel which the processing plants at La Hague and Sellafield would send back with the end of the contracts.

The spokesman for the power companies, Manfred Timm, said Wednesday that they were estimating that another five or six years would be needed, which would go at least to the end of the French contract.

He said that in the long term it would be possible to get out of the agreements, making use of the options provided for.

Green Environment Minister Juergen Trittin has said he wants to see the first nuclear stations closing by the end of the present parliament, in 2002.

But Schroeder has refused to be drawn, and officials of his Social Democratic Party said Wednesday it was impossible to fix an irrevocable date.

The question of a schedule for shutting down the plants is on the agenda for the next round of talks at the beginning of March.

Timm, head of the Hamburg firm HEW, reckoned that the nuclear plants, with an estimated life of 40 years, would still be operating decades hence. The oldest reactor came on line in 1968, the newest in 1989.

Nuclear stations provide 36 percent of Germany's electricity, but in states like Baden-Wurtemberg and Bavaria it is 60 percent, and the void will be difficult to fill.

One of the largest energy consumers in the world, Germany is also lacking in raw materials. Coal and lignite account for 52 percent of electricity produced, natural gas six percent, hydro-electric plants four percent and renewable energy like wind, solar power and biomass two percent.

While technical advances should be able to produce economies, energy needs are forecast to increase by 26 percent by 2020 in the west, and a massive 130 percent in the former East Germany.

This year the government plans to spend 100-125 million euros (116-145 million dollars) on renewable energy sources, erecting wind generators and installing solar panels on roofs.

But the number of homes to be supplied will remain limited, and experts predict that Germany will have to import electricity. The most likely source is France -- which generates 80 percent of its power from nuclear plants.