Greenpeace activists rappelled from the roof of Chancellor Angela Merkel's party headquarters to hang a massive anti-nuclear banner Thursday _ one of several protests against her government's plan to extend the lives of Germany's atomic power plants.
Merkel has defended the unpopular decision to roll back a previous government's plan to phase out all nuclear power by 2021. She says nuclear power is needed to keep energy cheap and available until Germany develops more renewable sources by 2050.
Her proposal, which passed parliament Thursday easily with her government's majority, extends the life of Germany's 17 nuclear power plants by an average of 12 years.
Opposition parties and environmental groups _ noting the lingering effects of Ukraine's 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster _ say Merkel's plan increases the risk of a plant accident in Germany. They also question whether it will undermine the push toward renewable resources like wind and solar power.
The company's major utilities are very much in favor of the plan. To sweeten the deal, the government would receive much-needed funds from Germany's four nuclear power utility companies _ E.ON AG, RWE AG, EnBW AG and Germany's subsidiary of Sweden's Vattenfall Europe.
Critics have accused Merkel of a shortsighted money grab. The Greenpeace banner said her party was shaping "policies for the nuclear industry," while protesters outside parliament Thursday waved banners with slogans like "atomic power kills."
"You're putting everything at stake in the interests of profits for four companies," Left Party caucus leader Gregor Gysi told lawmakers, speculating about what would happen if a nuclear meltdown occurred in Germany. "That is unimaginable."
Despite passing the lower house of parliament, the plan could still run into problems before it is implemented.
Merkel says the approval of the upper house, where her government does not have a majority, is not required.
But the leading opposition parties, the Greens and the Social Democrats, plan to take the case to the Federal Constitutional Court for a ruling on whether it must pass the upper house.
Merkel's government maintains that existing coal-fired plants raise concerns about emissions of the greenhouse gases believed to cause global warming, while renewables such as wind are more expensive than coal or nuclear power and right now provide only a small part of Germany's energy needs.
The plan would have Germany's 17 existing nuclear power plants remain online for 12 more years on average beyond 2021, with plants built before 1980 getting an extra eight years and more recent ones 14 more years, the government said. No new plants will be built.
In return for their expected additional profits, utility companies will have to pay an annual fuel tax expected to bring in euro2.3 billion ($3 billion) annually starting next year, and will have to contribute to a special fund to boost renewable energies.
The levy is part of a wider package of austerity measures and new taxes also being discussed in parliament that aim to save euro80 billion ($111 billion) through 2014.