By David Stamp
BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel will suspend on Monday a deeply unpopular agreement to delay closing the nation's nuclear power stations, due to the crisis at a Japanese plant, sources in her coalition said.
Last year, the coalition agreed to prolong the life of Germany's aging nuclear plants beyond their original planned closure dates. But with Japanese engineers trying avoid a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear complex, already strong opposition to Merkel's plan has stiffened.
Merkel and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who lead the coalition's two parties, were to make a joint announcement at 4 p.m. (11 a.m. EST), and one of the sources said the coalition was discussing a three-month suspension of the agreement.
Merkel faces a backlash against her nuclear policy before elections in the southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg later this month. Her conservative CDU party risks losing power in the state, due partly to rising support for the Greens.
Westerwelle, who leads the Free Democrats, the junior coalition partner, said earlier that a suspension was possible.
Asked by reporters if last year's coalition decision might be temporarily suspended, Westerwelle said: "I can imagine that." The further operation of every single nuclear plant in Germany could not be guaranteed, he added.
The government had decided to keep the nuclear plants running for about 12 years beyond their original shutdown date, despite large-scale protests even before the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan on Friday.
Germany's 17 nuclear power stations are operated by E.ON, RWE, EnBW and Vattenfall.
Germany had been due to go nuclear-free after the last plant reached the original end of its life in 2021. But pressure, largely from the power industry, grew to keep the stations open.
Last year's agreement was supposed to end months of division in the coalition over the issue.
One source said a suspension may mean Germany's two oldest reactors, Neckarwestheim 1 und Biblis A, are finished. Under the original closure schedule these two, which began operation in 1976 and 1975 respectively, had been due to shut down this year.
No new nuclear power stations have opened in Germany for decades due to public hostility, especially following the 1986 disaster when the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine exploded, spewing radiation across much of Europe.
Germany's most modern reactor started up in 1989.
Another prominent Christian Democrat, European Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger, refused to rule out early plant closures.
Oettinger told German radio that safety questions were primarily the responsibility of the 14 European Union states which used atomic energy.
But asked if the older plants could be shut down following the Japanese nuclear crisis, he said: "If we take it seriously and say the incident has changed the world -- and much that we as an industrial society have regarded as safe and manageable is now in question -- then we can't exclude anything."
Oettinger is a former premier of Baden-Wuerttemberg, the loss of which in two weeks' time would mark a severe setback from Merkel and her party.
(Additional reporting by Thorsten Severin, Andreas Rinke and Gernot Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich)