Germany Moves To Shutter Nuclear Power Stations

The German government has decided to close all the country's nuclear power stations by 2022. The decision marks a U-turn for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who only last year had forced through legislation that would have extended the working life of the power plants. Anti-nuclear feeling has grown in Germany following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. And in March, Merkel's Christian Democrats party lost a crucial regional election that was fought largely on environmental issues. NPR's Eric Westervelt talks to Robert Siegel from Berlin.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

The German government says it will close that country's 17 nuclear reactors by 2022 and switch to using more renewable energy. That decision is an about-face for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and it comes in a wake of renewed opposition to nuclear power following the disaster in Japan earlier this year.

Joining us to talk about the challenges ahead for Germany is NPR's Eric Westervelt, who joins us from Berlin.

And, Eric, less than a year ago, Chancellor Merkel pushed through a plan to extend the life of the country's nuclear power plants, not a very popular plan, but why reverse it now?

ERIC WESTERVELT: Well, Chancellor Merkel, Robert, in announcing her plan said that she had watched this technologically-advanced country, Japan, struggle with this nuclear crisis, and that led her to rethink her policies, her plans and herreally fundamental opinion on nuclear power. But certainly, public opinion and politics played a huge role, as well.

I mean, her decision last year to extend the life of those plants enraged people and sort of reawakened this anti-nuclear movement that had been very active since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

And then the Japan crisis comes along. That sort of politicized and re- energized the movement even more. You know, and then her conservative CDU Party, in March, Robert, lost control of an important state, Baden- Wurttemberg, which it had controlled for nearly six decades. And in that election, energy policy, environmental issues played a huge and really key role.

So, you know, there are other important elections coming up this year, state elections, so politics was really a huge factor, as well.

SIEGEL: Now, we should just say 17 nuclear reactors in Germany account for a great deal of that country's energy supply, don't they?

WESTERVELT: Well, exactly, and it's a key question of how, right now, you can switch off. It accounts for nearly a quarter of their energy supply.

SIEGEL: So where are they turning to? Will it all be wind and solar, or are they just going to import electricity from other countries that might indeed be generated by nuclear plants?

WESTERVELT: Well, wind and solar is part of the plan, but right now, really a lot of the details of the plan are still to be worked out. I mean, in general, Germany aims to get about 35 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, and then they want to boost that figure to 80 percent by 2050.

But right now, Germany gets barely 13 percent of its energy from renewables. So to meet those ambitious goals, yes, they want to invest more in wind, solar, hydroelectric and more in research and production of those alternatives and aggressively try to promote energy conservation, Robert.

But details of, you know, really how you get there, that will be a political and policy debate in the months ahead.

SIEGEL: I've seen it speculated that it's possible Germany could end up buying electricity from countries perhaps with far lower safety standards than Germany now has and that have nuclear power plants.

WESTERVELT: That's very possible. I mean, nuclear production in Europe could really stay the same or even rise, and green groups are warning against that here in Germany and against relying on gas and coal in the short term, Robert, to fill the power generation gap, both of which are bigger polluters than nuclear power.

SIEGEL: And are the Germans effectively saying that they, this huge manufacturing superpower, are prepared to have a higher fuel bill as they turn more to renewable sources of energy, that it'll just be more expensive to do things in Germany?

WESTERVELT: Well, I think so. And the German industrial groups, you know, raised those concerns quickly. German industry consumes nearly half of the total electricity supply in the country, and they say that this plan might undermine global competitiveness and raise energy costs, certainly in the short term, and most everyone agrees in the short term, it certainly will raise energy costs.

And green groups have called, in fact, for a faster phase-out of nuclear power, and they said they're worried, you know, in the short term Germany might end up burning more coal, more gas and importing more electricity from nuclear power producers, France, the Czech Republic and other neighbors.

SIEGEL: Given their neighbors' interest in continuing to produce, this doesn't sound like a European trend, or might it conceivably be, politically?

WESTERVELT: Well, no. I mean, the rest of Europe, Robert, is sticking with nuclear power, despite growing public concern and public opposition following the Japan crisis.

I mean, the French and the U.K. rely on nuclear power. They're staying with it. The Netherlands wants to build two new plants as part of its energy program. So the rest of Europe is really sticking with nuclear energy, and Germany will be something of a pioneer here.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Eric.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Eric Westervelt, speaking with us from Berlin.

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