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Germany's nuclear plants to shut down by 2022

Other power-hungry countries unlikely to follow German reactor decision

Germany is set to turn its back on nuclear power. On 30 May, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that all 17 of Germany's nuclear power plants will be shut down by 2022.

The decision reversed an earlier one extending reactor lifetimes to 2036. Nuclear power supplies nearly a quarter of Germany’s electricity.

Germany’s exit from nuclear power won’t, however, spark a stampede. It reflects conditions that are specific to the country, including Merkel’s weak political position and Germany’s uneasy relationship with nuclear energy.

“This irrational action can only be explained by the quirks of German parliamentary politics,” John Ritch, director general of the World Nuclear Association, said. “It makes no sense for the flooding of a few diesel generators on the east coast of Japan to result in the restructuring of the entire German industrial system.”

Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union recently lost the key state of Baden-Württemberg to the Greens over her nuclear policy. Germany’s anti-nuclear lobby group, which includes the Greens, is also one of the most vocal in Europe. With Merkel seeking re-election in two years, observers see this as a political move to regain some of this vote.

“Germany is not a typical example,” Malcolm Grimston, nuclear policy expert at London think tank Chatham House, said. “And there’s no real sign of a move in policy in other countries because the underlying fundamentals haven’t changed.”

Before the partial meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi, a number of new nuclear reactors were to be built in developed countries to replace ageing coal and gas-fired power plants. In developing economies, countries such as India and China were planning to build new nuclear plants to feed an expected surge in power demand.

And nuclear energy has other advantages. It offers power generation virtually free of carbon emissions when compared with gas- and coal-fired power plants, and is considered a more reliable supply of baseload electricity compared with wind or solar.

But despite Switzerland also phasing out its nuclear fleet by 2034, other countries with nuclear as a significant proportion of power generation capacity, including South Korea, France, the USA, and the UK, are unlikely to follow the German example. The exception is Japan, which has already closed the Hamaoka nuclear power plant due to earthquake-related safety fears.

And while China has suspended the approval of new plants, reactors under construction will still go ahead, while India is still on track to more than quadruple nuclear power capacity to 20 gigawatts (GW) by 2020. China is jumping from 11 GW now to nearly 80 GW in 2020.

Permanent shutdown?

Germany had already shut eight nuclear plants – including seven of the oldest ones – in the wake of the Japanese earthquake in March. It plans to close another six by 2021 and the remaining three newest plants by 2022.

Analysts said the proposal is likely to be approved by German politicians, although some question if the decision may be overturned later.

“This proposal has to be submitted to the Parliament, but despite opposition by the largest German utilities, we do not expect it to change as the remaining parties (mainly Greens and SPD) had already been pushing for the same outcome,” Société Générale analysts led by Emmanuel Fages said.

“The law will contain no “revision clause”, meaning that the exit decision is (in theory) for good.”

The time period before the complete phase out of nuclear also raises doubts about whether the plan may be reversed if a new government takes power.

Germany wants to reduce power consumption by 10% and to double renewable power generation to 35% by 2020 – but there aren’t many other countries following a similar path. It’s a bold strategy for Merkel to stay in power, even if risks turning off the lights.

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