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Germany turns back on nuclear power

In a move officials called “irreversible,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right coalition agreed Monday to phase out nuclear power by 2022, setting Europe’s biggest economy the formidable challenge of finding a replacement for 20 percent of its current energy supply.

The government’s decision comes after a 17-member ethics panel appointed after the Fukushima nuclear accident recommended giving Germany a “10-year exit corridor” to change its ways and go nuclear free. The panel, which included a Roman Catholic bishop and industrial and scientific leaders, called for keeping the seven oldest nuclear plants shut down after the Japan disaster off the grid and gradually switching off the other 10. But their report, released today, said weening Germany off nuclear power won’t be successful “without efforts of all segments of the political, business and societal world.”

“It has to happen sooner or later,” says Miranda Schreurs, chair of the Brussels-based European Environmental Sustainable Development Advisor Council, a network of advisors appointed by 16 European countries.

“If Germany does it first, it will become the technological leader globally, it will be the country that others turn to for advice, for equipment, it can set the standards for others.This decision gives Germany planning certainty and stability: If you know that you have a 10 year window to replace 20 percent of your electricity supply, it gives society a chance to come to terms with the decision, to start thinking about it.”

Last fall, Merkel had called for Germany to get 80 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2050. Today’s announcement increases the pressure to make that happen faster than planned.

To rely more on sun and wind power, Germany must expand its energy grid to bring green energy from its windy northern coast to its sunny south. That will entail building what experts say could be an estimated 3,000 kilometers of 260-feet-high power-lines through some of Germany’s most picturesque landscapes with a pricetag of billions of Euros in the coming decades.

“We have to have a new approach to the supply network, energy efficiency, renewable energy and also long-term monitoring of the process,” Merkel told reporters today. She stressed the importance of lifestyle changes to consume less energy.

Some are skeptical that Germany will achieve its goal, and point out that it remains heavily reliant on coal-fired and gas-fired power plants. They predict that Germany’s abandonment of nuclear power will lead to greater reliance on fossil fuels. Last year, about 25 percent of Germany’s power was produced with coal.

Germany’s “electricity will be more expensive and polluting,” French Industry Minister Eric Besson predicted in a statement. France is a major proponent of nuclear power. So far, Germany has been compensating for its closure of domestic nuclear plants in part by importing nuclear power, most from France.

A big test of whether Germany can go the green route will happen in the southern state of Baden Württemberg, which has just sworn in the country’s first Green state governor, says Marcel Viëtor, climate and energy specialist at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin says. There, most residents are anti-nuclear, but many are also opposed to an “Energie Autobahn” that could disfigure their rolling hills. Car-maker Daimler Benz fears the new decision could hurt German industry.

“There is a long way to go but it’s doable,” says Claudia Kemfert, an energy economist at the German Economist Institute in Berlin, who called the green sector “a growth machine for the German economy for the next decades.”

Encouraging, she said, is that all parties in Germany now agree on the need to get out of nuclear. From “a historical perspective, that’s a completely new situation,” says Kemfert.

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