BERLIN - Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is preparing to perform a major U-turn by scrapping plans to abandon nuclear power.
The move would bring Berlin into line with many of its European neighbours, who are investing heavily in new and existing sources of atomic energy, but puts Mrs Merkel on a collision course with the country's powerful green lobby and her coalition partners.
Mrs Merkel's dramatic change of heart surfaced at an energy summit attended by government and industry heads in Berlin last week, when it became clear that her ruling grand coalition's aim of closing Germany's 17 nuclear power plants by the early 2020s were at odds with targets for the reduction of CO2 emissions.
A government-commissioned study unveiled at the summit showed that Mrs Merkel's targets were not feasible without nuclear power.
Germany's first woman leader is passionately concerned about climate change and her decision to ditch her coalition's anti-nuclear policies stems directly from her own ambitious plans to protect the environment.
"We cannot just continue as if it's business as usual," she said last week in defence of her climate control agenda.
However, it will bring her into direct conflict with the influential green lobby, which pioneered environmental politics in Europe in the Seventies, and will also strain relations with her coalition partners, the Social Democrats, who favour sticking to the original policy. Her plans to stick with nuclear power are unlikely to be finalised until after a general election in 2009, but the issue could nonetheless dominate the contest.
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Sigmar Gabriel, Germany's Social Democrat Environment Minister, remains adamant that his party's commitment to abandoning nuclear power should not be undermined. "The plan to finish with nuclear power will go ahead," he insisted.
There is also opposition from fellow conservatives within Mrs Merkel's own Christian Democratic Union party. Klaus Toepfer, a leading conservative and former German environment minister, who until last year headed the United Nations Environment Programme, said: "We need a future without nuclear power and we must do everything to develop renewable energy sources and increase energy efficiency to achieve this."
Under Germany's recent European Presidency, Mrs Merkel set the target of a 20 per cent reduction of CO2 emissions within the EU by 2020. For Germany, she has set a 40 per cent target.
The new study showed that Germany would need to maintain its use of nuclear power if it was to hit those targets.
Germany is already surrounded by European neighbours whose commitment to nuclear power is growing. With 59 reactors, France is the EU's leading nuclear energy supplier, and Finland and Britain have launched plans to extend their use of the atom.
The EU's new eastern European members have also embarked on ambitious atomic energy projects, which involve replacing outdated and potentially dangerous former Soviet-built reactors installed before the collapse of Communism.
Germany, Sweden and Belgium are the only EU member states with plans to phase out nuclear power.
© Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2007.