Towards a nuclear-free Germany

Germany’s announcement that it plans to phase out nuclear power by 2022 has stunned the global energy industry, with one commentator comparing its significance to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Following late night talks between the leaders of the coalition government, German environment minister Norbert Roettengen announced early yesterday morning that the country’s 17 nuclear reactors (eight of which are already offline) would permanently close within 11 years.

It is the latest step in Germany’s dramatic shift in energy policy following the accident at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant in March and rising anti-nuclear sentiment among German voters. The decision is based on recommendations from an expert panel assembled in the wake of Japan’s crisis. (See “Germany’s unlikely green radical” for more analysis of the change of direction in Angela Merkel’s energy policy away from nuclear power and towards greater investment in renewables.)

Among those welcoming the move was German commentator Bernhard Potter who, writing in newspaper Die Tageszeitung, compared the decision to the reunification of Germany in 1989. Under the headline “A moment like the fall of the Wall”, he wrote: “It is normally difficult to recognise a historic moment when you are next to it. And you should be very careful with that label. But here’s one: a timetable for an industrialised country to move to a sustainable energy supply… That has not happened before, it is a step in the right direction – and the world is watching.” (This translation comes from The First Post, which has published a round-up of reactions to yesterday’s news.)

There was praise too from global environmental groups, including long-time anti-nuclear campaigners Greenpeace, though the body argued the phase-out deadline should be brought forward to 2015. “By waving goodbye to nuclear power, Germany has shown that with real vision and determination any country can get rid of risky, dirty and outdated energy sources, and replace them with already available 21st-century renewable and energy efficient technologies,” said head of the organisation’s nuclear campaign Jan Beranek.

Reaction has not all been enthusiastic, however. Hans-Peter Keitel, president of the Federal Association for German Industry has written to Merkel warning of negative impacts on German business of any disruption to its energy supply: “How will the international competitiveness of German industry be guaranteed?” he asked. “Industry last year accounted for two-thirds of Germany’s economic upswing.” And French energy minister Eric Besson said the decision would lead to greater reliance on fossil fuels – a statement bolstered by figures from analysts at Deutsche Bank, Barclays and others.

Meanwhile, prominent pro-nuclear environmentalists, including British writer George Monbiot, have continued to argue that both nuclear and renewables are an essential part of a sustainable energy mix – and there is no need to choose between them.

The obvious question now is whether Germany is pursuing a lonely path or acting as a trailblazer for the rest of Europe and beyond. Switzerland has already said it will be nuclear free by 2034, while countries including France and the United Kingdom appear to be sticking by plans for new nuclear construction. And in China, the debate over nuclear power continues – see our series China’s nuclear future for detailed discussion.