Germany to shut down reactors

Europe’s economic powerhouse, Germany, is to abandon nuclear energy over the next eleven years — drawing up an ambitious plan in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima disaster to replace atomic power with renewable energy sources.

The nuclear plant of Neckarwestheim

The nuclear plant of Neckarwestheim

BERLIN — Europe’s economic powerhouse, Germany, is to abandon nuclear energy over the next eleven years — drawing up an ambitious plan in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima disaster to replace atomic power with renewable energy sources.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday she hopes the transformation to more solar, wind and hydroelectric power becomes a test case for other countries.

“We believe that we can show those countries who decide to abandon nuclear power — or not to start using it — how it is possible to achieve growth, creating jobs and economic prosperity while shifting the energy supply toward renewable energies,” Merkel said.

Merkel’s government announced Monday that it will shut down all of the 17 nuclear power plants in Germany — the world’s fourth-largest economy and Europe’s biggest — by 2022.

The country’s seven oldest reactors, already taken off the grid pending safety inspections following the March catastrophe at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, will remain offline permanently, Merkel said.

The plants accounted for about 40 per cent of the country’s nuclear power capacity.

The decision completed a remarkable about-face for Merkel’s centre-right government, which only late last year pushed through a plan to extend the life span of the country’s 17 reactors — with the last scheduled to go offline around 2036.

But Merkel, who holds a Ph.D. in physics, now says industrialized, technologically advanced Japan’s “helplessness” in the face of the Fukushima disaster made her rethink the technology’s risks.

Overcoming nuclear power within a decade will be a challenge, but it will be feasible and ultimately give Germany a competitive advantage in the renewable energy era, Merkel said.

“As the first big industrialized nation, we can achieve such a transformation toward efficient and renewable energies, with all the opportunities that brings for exports, developing new technologies and jobs,” Merkel told reporters.

The government says the renewable energy sector already employs about 370,000 people.

At the time of Japan’s disaster, Germany got just under a quarter of its electricity from nuclear power, about the same share as in the U.S.

While Germany already was set to abandon nuclear energy eventually, the decision — which still requires parliamentary approval — dramatically speeds up that process. Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen said there are no provisions that would allow a later policy reverse.

“We don’t only want to renounce nuclear energy by 2022, we also want to reduce our CO2 emissions by 40 per cent and double our share of renewable energies, from about 17 per cent today to then 35 per cent,” the chancellor said.

Merkel said the cornerstones of Germany’s energy policy will be a safe and steady power supply that doesn’t rely on imports, affordable prices for industry and consumers, and making sure carbon emissions keep diminishing.

Still, Germany’s initiative received a skeptical reception abroad.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon — whose country relies on nuclear power to produce 80 per cent of its electricity supply — insisted “there’s no way” for the European Union to meet its emission-cutting targets without at least some use of nuclear power.

“We respect this decision, but it doesn’t cause us to change our policy,” Fillon said. France operates more than one-third of the nuclear reactors in the EU.

Sweden’s Environment Minister Andreas Carlgren also criticized the German decision, telling The Associated Press that the focus on an end date was unfortunate and could increase electricity prices across Europe.

“Instead of nuclear power, they will build new coal power, gas power plants and also import electricity from French nuclear power,” Carlgren said.

Germany, usually a net energy exporter, has at times had to import energy since March, with the seven old reactors shut and others temporarily off the grid for regular maintenance work.

Still, the agency overseeing its electricity grid, DENA, said Friday that the country remains self-sufficient and its renewable energy production capacity this spring peaked at 28 gigawatt — or about the equivalent of 28 nuclear reactors.

The country’s energy supply chain indeed “needs a new architecture,” necessitating huge efforts to boost renewable energies, store energy, increasing efficiency gains and overhaul the grid, along with more investment in natural gas plants as a backup to rule out blackouts, Merkel said. The government had no immediate estimate of the transition’s overall cost.

The determination of Germany to gradually replace its nuclear power with renewable energy sources makes it stand out among the world’s major industrialized nations.

Among other Group of Eight nations, only Italy has abandoned nuclear power, which was voted down in a referendum after the 1986 Chornobyl disaster — leading it to shut down its three operating reactors.

Many Germans have vehemently opposed nuclear power since Chornobyl sent radioactivity over the country. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets after Fukushima to urge the government to shut all reactors quickly.

A decade ago, a centre-left government first penned a plan to abandon the technology for good by 2021 because of its inherent risks. But Merkel’s government last year amended it to extend the plants’ lifetime by an average 12 years — a political liability after Fukushima was hit by Japan’s March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Environmental groups welcomed Berlin’s decision.

“The country is throwing its weight behind clean renewable energy to power its manufacturing base and other countries like Britain should take note,” said Robin Oakley, Greenpeace UK’s campaigns director.

Germany’s industry umbrella organization said the government must not allow the policy changes to lead to an unstable power supply or rising electricity prices.

Hans-Peter Keitel, the president of the Federation of German Industries, urged the government not to set the exit date of 2022 in stone, but to be flexible if problems arise in the coming years.

Switzerland, where nuclear power produces 40 per cent of electricity, also announced last week that it plans to shut down its reactors gradually once they reach their average lifespan of 50 years — which would mean taking the last plant off the grid in 2034.

Germany’s decision broadly follows the conclusions of a government-mandated commission on the ethics of nuclear power, which delivered recommendations on how to abolish the technology on Saturday.

“Fukushima was a dramatic experience, seeing there that a high-technology nation can’t cope with such a catastrophe,” Matthias Kleiner, the commission’s co-chairman, said Monday.

“Nuclear power is a technology with too many inherent risks to inflict it on us or our children.”

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