GEIR MOULSON, Associated Press
Updated 06:05 p.m., Saturday, March 12, 2011
BERLIN (AP) — Thousands of people demonstrated on Saturday against plans to extend the life of Germany’s nuclear power stations, as an explosion at a Japanese nuclear power plant sharpened a long-running dispute over the technology’s future in this country.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Germany would examine whether it needs to draw lessons from Japan for its own plants and that officials would be asked to check safety at German nuclear power stations. However, she stressed that the country’s standards are high.
At the protest in southwestern Germany, demonstrators formed a human chain between the Neckarwestheim nuclear plant and the city of Stuttgart, which are 28 miles (45 kilometers) apart. Some waved yellow flags with the slogan “Nuclear power — no thanks.” Police said several tens of thousands attended; organizers put the number at 60,000.
The demonstration was planned long before the post-earthquake blast at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, but the fears of possible disaster gave an added focus to opponents of the technology in Germany.
Germany’s government last year moved to extend the life of its 17 nuclear plans for an average 12 extra years. A decade ago, a previous government decided to shut them by 2021.
While Germany — unlike some of its European Union partners — has no plans to build any new plants, the extension was divisive.
The mishap in Japan came two weeks before a closely fought state election in the region where Saturday’s protest was held. It prompted new opposition criticism.
Events at Fukushima “show that, even in a high-tech country like Japan that is equipped for all eventualities, nuclear power is an uncontrollable, highly dangerous, risky technology,” the leadership of the opposition Greens said in a statement.
Matthias Miersch, a lawmaker with the main opposition Social Democrats, urged the government to scrap immediately the decision to extend German nuclear plants’ lives.
After discussing the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami with key ministers, Merkel said she understood people who worried whether a nuclear plant at home could get into similar difficulties.
“We know how safe our nuclear power plants are; we know that we are threatened neither by such severe earthquakes nor such massive flood waves,” Merkel said. “All the same — what we can learn from events in Japan, we will learn.”
She added that, given that the problems in Japan arose despite very high safety standards, “then the whole world … cannot simply go back to business as usual.”
Nuclear energy has been unpopular in Germany since an explosion at a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986, sent a cloud of radiation over much of Europe.
But Merkel insists Germany needs to keep it until it has developed more renewable power sources. “I believe the peaceful use of nuclear energy as a bridging technology is responsible and justifiable,” she said Saturday.
Merkel and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle pushed aside questions about any effects on the government’s future nuclear policy.
With thousands likely dead or missing in Japan, “Germany’s first answer can’t be that … a political argument breaks out here because there are state election campaigns going on,” Westerwelle said.
Merkel’s center-right coalition faces a tight battle to keep control of the regional government in Baden-Wuerttemberg on March 27, and two other votes also are looming.
In Italy, where voters rejected nuclear power in a 1987 referendum, the Japanese accident fed opposition to the current government’s plans to build nuclear reactors to reduce dependence on energy imports.
Frances D’Emilio contributed from Rome.