Germany to close reactors

Angela Merkel has committed to shutting down all the country’s nuclear reactors by 2022, a task said by one minister to be as mammoth as the project to reunite East and West Germany in 1990.

The announcement, prompted by Japan’s nuclear disaster, will make Germany the first major industrialised nation in decades go to nuclear-free. It gives the country just over 10 years to find alternative sources for 23% of its energy.

The move, hammered out at a mammoth 14-hour overnight sitting at the Bundestag, came amid mass nationwide protests against nuclear power and at a low point for the chancellor’s Christian Democratic Party, support for which has crumbled at the ballot box in five regional elections this year.

Although the proposal was welcomed by many Germans, it was derided by one of Merkel’s own MPs as “knee-jerk politics”. The plan is to keep shut eight reactors suspended in March immediately after the Japanese disaster and to close the rest by 2022.

The phase-out must be ratified in Parliament and is likely to face strong opposition from utility companies.
Last week, a spokesperson for the energy conglomerate RWE said that “all legal options” were on the table.

Grid operators recently warned that the phase-out could result in winter blackouts, a prospect Merkel scoffed at. She insisted the decision would not lead to Germany simply importing nuclear power.

“We will generate our own electricity from other sources,” she told the media in Berlin. She said the plans would give Germany a chance to be a “trailblazer” for renewable energy, suggesting it could eventually earn, rather than cost, the country money. Energy firms warned that the decision would require significant investment in energy infrastructure.

Philipp Rosler, new head of the Free Democratic Party, which rules in coalition with the CDU, agreed, likening the task ahead to that which faced Germany in 1990 after reunification.

The left-leaning Tageszeitung newspaper said Merkel’s decision was “historic” and “a moment like the fall of the Berlin Wall”. But Die Welt, a conservative daily, said the policy U-turn demonstrated a “creeping rejection of the economic model which has transformed Germany into one of the richest countries in the world”.

The French poured scorn on Germany’s decision. “Germany will be even more dependent on fossil fuel and imports and its electricity will be more expensive and polluting,” said French Industry Minister Eric Besson. German households pay twice as much for power than those in France, where 80% of electricity comes from atomic plants, he said.

Last year Germany was a net exporter of power to France, according to data from French grid operator RTE. This trend was reversed last month after the accident at Fukushima and Merkel’s decision to halt Germany’s oldest reactors.

“Germany’s energy policy will work only if there are improvements at the same time,” European Union energy commissioner Gunther Oettinger said on Monday. There was a need for better grid infrastructure, storage capacity and forward planning, as well as a more pronounced rise in renewable supply, he said. Germany plans to cut electricity usage by 10% and double the share of renewable energy to 25% by 2020.

Merkel first mooted an accelerated exit from nuclear power within days of the Fukushima meltdown, ordering a three-month “moratorium”, during which nuclear power could be debated. It was a remarkable U-turn. In September 2010 she committed to extending the lives of Germany’s 17 nuclear plants.

Many members of her party are unhappy with her handling of the situation. “Knee-jerk politics like the reaction to Fukushima does not pay dividends,” said Mike Mohring, head of the CDU faction in the Thuringian state parliament. Among other G8 nations, only Italy has abandoned nuclear power.—

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