Thursday, June 2, 2011

Germany announces the phase-out of nuclear power

On May 30, the German government announced that all of Germany’s seventeen nuclear power stations would be permanently shut down by 2022.

Germany’s seven oldest nuclear power stations – temporarily switched off after public outcry and protests in the aftermath of the disaster in Fukushima – will remain offline, and will be permanently decommissioned.

An eighth plant
in northern Germany is already offline because of technical problems, and will remain shut down for good.Six of the remaining 9 power stations will be shut down in 2021, and the final three will be turned off in 2022.

"It's definite: the latest end of the last three nuclear power plants is 2022," Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen told reporters. "There will be no clause for revision."

The announcement has been greeted with critical support from anti-nuclear and environmental organisations such as Greenpeace, who have maintained their call for an earlier phase out date of 2015.

The announcement is not an entirely new proposition, either. In 2001, the then coalition government of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the German Greens passed legislation to phase out nuclear power in Germany by the end of 2021.

In October 2010, however, the current conservative coalition government headed by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) reversed the policy, extending Germany’s reliance on nuclear energy until at least 2036.

That decision was met with widespread outcry, and was criticised by all three opposition parties – the SPD, the Greens and the socialist party Die Linke.

Massive protests were held across Germany. On October 9, 55,000 took to the streets in Munich and on November 6, 50,000 protesters blockaded a train carrying 123 tons of highly radioactive waste near the small north German town of Gorleben.

Merkel, a trained physicist and lifelong proponent of nuclear power, refused to budge, despite opinion polls showing over 80 percent opposition to nuclear energy.

Germany is still suffering the effects of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, which spewed radioactive material across western Europe – and has seen three small-scale nuclear incidents of its own - and nuclear energy has remained a key point of contention in German politics.

After the Fukushima disaster, anti-nuclear protests once again broke out across the country.

On March 12, over 60,000 anti-nuclear activists formed a 45 kilometre human chain stretching from Stuttgart to the Neckarwestheim I nuclear reactor on the French border.

In the lead up to vital state elections in the conservative southern state of Baden-Württemburg, Merkel announced the temporary closure of the seven oldest nuclear power stations for safety checks.

The tactic failed to convince the electorate in Baden-Württemburg, and on March 27 Merkel’s CDU lost control of that wealthy state for the first time since 1954.

The day before the election, over 250,000 people took to the streets across the country in Germany’s largest-ever antinuclear protests.

The CDU was replaced in government by the SPD and the Greens, buoyant in the polls after months of campaigning around local issues and for an end to nuclear power.

For the first time ever, the German Greens – who formed in the late 1970s out of the anti-nuclear movement – were the senior partners in a state government, and the new state premier, Winfried Kretschmann, was an original founding member of the Greens.

Even then, Merkel woudn’t shift, and it took another demolition of the CDU – this time in the May 20 state elections in Bremen – before she acted.

Two days before the government's announcement, a further 100,000 people took to the streets across Germany, demanding immediate action on nuclear energy.

Phasing out nuclear power poses a particular challenge for Germany, however. As Europe’s economic powerhouse and one of the world’s largest economies, it will need to rapidly replace the 23 percent of energy currently supplied by nuclear power.

Fears have already been expressed that the announcement is disingenuous, and that the German government will simply replace locally-generated nuclear power with nuclear power imported from France or Poland.

Climate activists are also worried that the shortfall will be made up by an increase in the production of energy from coal at a time when climate change is reaching a critical tipping point.

The German government has announced that it will increase energy generation from renewables (primarily wind and solar) from the current 17 percent to 35 percent over the next decade.

It has also announced plans to reduce energy consumption by increasing energy efficiency, particularly in housing, and to cut its carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2020.

Germany’s announcement is the latest in a series of anti-nuclear moves within the European Union.

Switzerland - which relies on nuclear power for 40 percent of its energy needs – recently declared that it will phase out the industry as the country’s five aging nuclear plants reach the end of their lifetimes between 2019 and 2034.

On May 25, eight European countries – Austria, Greece, Ireland, Latvia, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta and Portugal – formed an anti-nuclear alliance, calling for a rapid transition from nuclear and fossil fuels to renewable energy in order to combat climate change.

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