Germany Backs Away from Nuclear

In the wake of what she calls Japan’s “catastrophe of apocalyptic dimensions,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced Monday that Germany will be completely nuclear-free in just over 10 years. “It’s definite—the latest end for the last three nuclear plants is 2022,” said Norbert Röttgen, Germany’s environment minister.

Merkel, who holds a PhD. in physics, said industrialized, technologically advanced Japan’s “helplessness’ in the face of the Fukushima disaster—when the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was damaged following a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami and leaked extensive radioactive material into surrounding waters—made her rethink nuclear energy’s risks. The plan calls for phasing out all of Germany’s 17 nuclear reactors and replacing the 23% of the nation’s electricity that they currently provide with renewable resources. The commission in charge of spearheading the transition “identified wind, solar and water as alternatives, as well as geothermal energy and so-called biomass energy from waste.”

“We don’t only want to renounce nuclear energy by 2022, we also want to reduce our CO2 emissions by 40% and double our share of renewable energies, from about 17% today to then 35%,” the chancellor said.

Mark Hibbs, a senior associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said the decision could have major repercussions worldwide.“If the government goes ahead with what it said it would do, then Germany will be a kind of laboratory for efforts worldwide to end nuclear power in an advanced economy,” he said. “No other country in the world is taking those steps.”

Merkel says Germany is glad to be the first country to step away from nuclear power. “As the first big industrialized nation, we can achieve such a transformation toward efficient and renewable energies, with all the opportunities that brings for exports, developing new technologies and jobs,” she told reporters.

In Switzerland, the cabinet has already announced that the country will shut down reactors once they reach their average life span of 50 years—taking the last plant off the grid in 2034—and will ban the building of any new plants. And experts say Germany’s phase-out provides a good map for the U.S., which relies on a similar percentage of nuclear power to meet its energy needs. At the time of the Japanese disaster, Germany drew just under a quarter of its electricity from nuclear power, about the same share as in the U.S.

“If we had the winds of Texas or the sun of California, the task here would be even easier,” said Felix Matthes of Germany’s renowned Institute for Applied Ecology. “Given the great potential in the U.S., it would be feasible there in the long run, too, even though it would necessitate huge infrastructure investments.”

However, nations like France, which receives 80% of its electricity from its 58 nuclear plants, remain committed to nuclear energy. “We respect this decision, but it doesn’t cause us to change our policy,” said France’s Prime Minister Francois Fillon.

With Fukushima’s radiation level reaching the maximum level 7, described by the ¬International Atomic Energy Authority as “A major release of radioactive material with widespread health and environmental effects requiring implementation of planned and extended countermeasures,” Merkel is continuing to remind surrounding nations that “everybody in Europe would be equally affected by an accident at a nuclear power plant within Europe.” She is now pushing for stronger common safety standards, a topic that will be discussed at the upcoming European Union summit in Brussels.