By Erik Kirschbaum
BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday denied she had lied to the public about the suitability of a permanent location for the country's central nuclear waste dump when she was environment minister in the 1990s.
In a rare five-hour appearance before a parliamentary inquiry, Merkel rebutted allegations that the then government had put political considerations before scientific findings when it decided to focus the search for a waste dump only in Gorleben in northern Germany.
"I deny any and all conjecture, allegations and suspicions that the government at the time did not act properly and legally," the conservative chancellor and chairwoman of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party told a 16-member parliamentary panel.
While it is unlikely that questions about her performance as a minister in the 1990s will dent her solid popularity ratings one year before the next election, the issue of where Germany will permanently store its nuclear waste has long been politically sensitive.
The opposition Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens accuse her of bowing to political pressure from her party allies at the time and focusing only on Gorleben - the site of a temporary dump - as a permanent nuclear waste site, rather than exploring other possibly more suitable locations.
Specifically, they say that Merkel distorted the results of a scientific study by the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources that reported it was worthwhile to explore other sites for a permanent storage site.
Ute Vogt, SPD committee leader, said Merkel had misled the public about the results of the study by saying it considered Gorleben, in a sparsely populated northern region far away from conservative voter strength in southern Germany, to be the most appropriate location when it in fact did not say that at all.
"In my view you were deliberately dishonest about the results of the study in order to keep everything calm politically in your camp," said Vogt.
Merkel, 58, denied she had misled the public. But she acknowledged her comments in 1995 were not as precise as now.
She drew laughter in the crowded chamber when she responded with an ironic smile to a pointed question from Vogt about why her 1995 statements differed from what she said on Thursday: "Because I wasn't as perfect back then as I am now."
Vogt shot back: "Why don't you just tell us the truth? You don't have to be perfect. Just honest."
The parliamentary inquiry was launched in 2010 and has already become one of the most expensive investigations in German history.
Germany, which last year announced plants to shut down all its nuclear power plants in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, still does not have a permanent waste dump even though Gorleben has been its intermediary repository since 1977.
(Reporting by Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Andrew Osborn)