Germany Phases Out Nuclear Energy

Merkel's decision could have a ripple effect for the nuclear industry worldwide, given that Germany is the largest developed country to phase out nuclear energy, and could prove useful for a rethink of U.S. nuclear energy policy.
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Berlin, Germany -- On Saturday, over 200,000 protested nuclear energy in over 20 cities in Germany. In Berlin alone, over 100,000 persons demonstrated.

And on Monday, Angela Merkel announced a decision to phase out all nuclear energy in Germany by the end of 2022. It will, she underscored, by reliable, affordable and economical.

She had appointed a panel of 17, including ministers, academics, politicians, businesspeople, to assess Germany's nuclear energy. This so-called Ethics Commission was charged with assessing Germany's nuclear energy usage on the basis of ethics, weighing whether or not nuclear energy should be used, given its known and unknown detrimental side effects. Ultimately, the Ethics Commission decided it was unethical to burden future generations with nuclear energy's hazardous waste. "A decade," the panel declared this weekend, "is enough" and called for her to end Germany's reliance on nuclear energy.

Last fall, Merkel announced that she would extend the lifespan of plants by 12 years on average.

But she revised that position this past March as a result not only of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster in Japan and but also of the elections then upcoming in two German states.

Widespread public opposition -- expressed among other things through consistent direct actions throughout Germany -- voiced opposition to nuclear energy. In Baden-Württemberg, one of the two states facing elections in late March, 60,000 people demonstrated against a nuclear power plant located there, forming a human chain from the city of Stuttgart to the reactor located 27 miles outside of town.

A precedent for nuclear policy had been set in 2000, when the Alliance 90/The Greens -- a coalition government of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party -- announced a decision made in conjunction with the nuclear energy industry to phase out nuclear power plants by 2020.

Germany's four leading nuclear energy firms -- Eon, RWE, EnBw and Swedish-based Vattenfall -- have announced a 180 degree turn, preparing a lawsuit last month against the German government's decision to idle seven of Germany's 17 nuclear power stations by 2022. It was filed by RWE.

These four nuclear energy firms warned that Germany could face widespread winter blackouts, if Merkel phases out nuclear power, a finding that has been challenged by a recent study conducted by German Watch.

Harry Lehmann, General Director of the Environmental Planning and Sustainability Strategies at the Federal Environment Agency in Germany, also argues that powering Germany's energy needs without nuclear energy is entirely feasible -- and by 2017. That is, four years before the 2022 phase out announced today by Merkel.

When interviewed today for his response to Merkel's decision, Jürgen Trittin, chairman of the Alliance 90/The Greens, too, stated that 2017 was a viable date for winding down nuclear energy.

Greenpeace Germany has upped the ante by demanding an even more ambitious phase out in Germany by 2015.

Merkel's decision could have a ripple effect for the nuclear industry worldwide, given that Germany is the largest developed country to phase out nuclear energy. Germany is the world's fifth largest consumer of nuclear energy in terms of megawatts consumed, after the U.S., France, Japan and Russia.

Additionally, Germany's retool could prove useful for a rethink of U.S. nuclear energy policy. According to the German Ministry of Energy, Germany draws 22% of its energy from nuclear power. The U.S, by contrast, derives about 8% of its energy from nuclear energy, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration. If Germany can manage a retool given a reliance over twice as high on nuclear energy, the U.S. should certainly be able to achieve it, given a lower percentage of nuclear.

Tina Gerhardt is an independent journalist who covers climate change. Her work has appeared in Alternet, Grist, Environment News Service, In These Times, The Progressive and The Nation, on GRIT tv, WBAI and the National Radio Project.

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