Facing public outrage and concern over the nuclear meltdown unfolding in Japan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced the temporary shutdown of several of that country's nuclear reactors.
On March 12, over 60,000 anti-nuclear protesters in the south-western state of Baden-Württemberg formed a 45 kilometre human chain, stretching from Stuttgart to the Neckarwestheim 1 nuclear plant.
Smaller protests took place in more than 450 towns and cities across Germany, according to anti-nuclear organisation "Ausgestrahlt" (Irradiated), and more protests are planned for March 26.
Merkel responded by announcing on March 15 that all 17 German nuclear plants would undergo safety checks. Of these, the oldest seven – all of which began operating before 1980 – would be shut down for three months, beginning immediately with the Isar 1 power plant in Bavaria.
Two of the seven older plants are already shut down – one is undergoing maintenance, while the other was taken offline in 2007 after an accident.
The move has been criticised by anti-nuclear groups and opposition parties as inadequate, and as a cynical, dishonest manoeuvre, designed only to arrest the desperate decline in support for Merkel’s ruling part, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
Merkel’s support for nuclear is also well known. In October last year Merkel’s government reversed the standing German policy of phasing out nuclear power by 2021, and extended the life of the country’s nuclear reactors by an average of twelve years.
Facing down criticisms and protests by hundreds of thousands of people, Merkel refused to budge, describing her move in overturning the decade-long policy as “a revolution”.
All of Germany's opposition parties have demanded that the seven old stations be immediately closed for good, and the socialist party Die Linke (The Left) has called for a worldwide moratorium on expanding nuclear power.
Even Merkel’s environment minister, Norbert Röttgen, has admitted to Stern magazine that Germany should abandon nuclear power sooner than currently proposed.
Merkel’s increasingly unstable government faces the test of six state elections this year, including three – Saxony-Anhalt, Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg – this month.
Her ruling coalition has already lost control of the German Bundesrat (Upper House) after defeats in recent state elections, but a loss in Baden-Württemberg would be a heavy blow.
The CDU has ruled the state since 1953, but looks increasingly likely to lose power to a coalition of the Greens and the Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Germany currently gets more than a quarter of its energy from nuclear power, but the industry has been overwhelmingly unpopular in Germany since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, which spewed radioactive material all over Europe.
Germany has also seen three minor nuclear accidents of its own, in 1975, 1986 and 1987.