Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel at the end of May officially endorsed a plan to shut down all 17 of the nation’s nuclear power plants by 2022. The decision, which gives the power-intensive nation just over a decade to find new sources of power for 23% of its energy needs, has had reverberations all over the world, though the future of nuclear—through growth in developing nations—continues to look sturdy.
Merkel’s historic decision—which has been likened to the decision to reunite East and West Germany in the 1990s—came after an overnight session at the German Chancellery following mass protests around the country against nuclear power, but it still needs parliamentary approval before being enacted. It allows the government to keep closed the nation’s seven oldest reactors that had been suspended in March (immediately after the catastrophic Fukushima crisis occurred), shutter six by 2021, and close the rest by 2022. Until then, perhaps one of the seven oldest reactors will be kept in reserve to guard against blackouts, Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen told reporters in May.
Otherwise, Germany will plan to cut its power usage by 10% and double the share of renewable energy to 25% by 2020. While Merkel prepares to submit bills to the Cabinet to restructure feed-in-tariffs for renewables and smart grids, Germany’s renewable energy federation, BWE, has said member companies are prepared to spend as much as €200 billion ($286 billion) by 2020 to develop wind and solar power.
The suspension of the seven oldest reactors has already forced Germany—a net exporter of power—to begin power imports from France, raising prices to consumers. Meanwhile, utilities that own nuclear plants around the country, like E.ON and RWE, have threatened legal action against the government’s decision to retain a tax on spent fuel rods to cover costs of their disposal, while grid operators warned that the planned phase-out could result in winter blackouts.
E.ON said in a statement that it accepts “the will of the political majority” to phase out nuclear, but it expected financial compensation from the government amounting to “billions of euros” for the “damages associated with these decisions,” especially because it had prepared to extend the lives of its nuclear reactors. E.ON had already publicly said the nuclear fuel tax was “unlawful,” when first announced. Because the tax withheld funds needed for investments to transform the energy framework and it put E.ON at an “unreasonable disadvantage in the European competitive market,” the company said it would sue the government over its decision regarding the fuel tax.
In Europe, Germany’s decision has been echoed only by Italy and Switzerland. France and the UK maintain political commitments to developing new nuclear. Lithuania in late May even began receiving bids for a new nuclear plant that could come online in 2020. Officials from that country said a new plant was necessary after the European Union ordered a shutdown of the Soviet-era Ignalina plant in 2009 and because the country imports 50% of its power and all of its gas from Russia.
Even the International Energy Agency (IEA) has jumped in, saying Germany’s moratorium on nuclear power could add 25 million metric tons to the country’s carbon dioxide emissions. The country would be required to generate 90 TWh of gas-fired power to replace 40 TWh from coal plants to offset the entire 25 million tons and satisfy the European Union’s carbon constraint goals. Separately, the IEA warned in a report that the “unprecedented” challenge of decarbonizing the world’s power supply could result in less than half of the carbon emissions reductions necessary by 2035 to limit the eventual increase in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius.
—Sonal Patel is POWER’s senior writer.