Germany weaning itself from nuclear power
Germany is determined to show the world how abandoning nuclear energy can be done.
The world's fourth-largest economy stands alone among leading industrialized nations in its decision to stop using nuclear energy because of its inherent risks. It is betting billions on expanding the use of renewable energy to meet power demands instead.
The transition was supposed to happen slowly over the next 25 years, but is now being accelerated in the wake of Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant disaster, which Chancellor Angela Merkel has called a "catastrophe of apocalyptic dimensions."
Berlin's decision to take seven of its 17 reactors offline for three months for new safety checks has provided a glimpse into how Germany might wean itself from getting nearly a quarter of its power from atomic energy to none.
And experts say Germany's phase-out provides a good map that countries such as the United States, which use a similar amount of nuclear power, could follow. Canada gets about 15 per cent of its power from nuclear energy, but in Ontario, that figure is closer to 50 per cent.
The German model would not work, however, in countries like France, which relies on nuclear energy for more than 70 per cent of its power and has no intention of shifting.
"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."
Nuclear power has been very unpopular in Germany ever since radioactivity from the 1986 Chornobyl disaster drifted across the country. A centre-left government a decade ago penned a plan to abandon the technology for good by 2021, but Merkel's government last year amended it to extend the plants' lifetime by an average of 12 years.
That plan was put on hold after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami compromised nuclear power plants in Japan, and is being re-evaluated as the safety of all of Germany's nuclear reactors is being rechecked.
Plan will lead to higher energy prices
Germany currently gets 23 per cent of its energy from nuclear power — about as much as the U.S. It's ambitious plan to shut down its reactors will require at least $210 billion US investment in alternative energy sources, which experts say will likely lead to higher electricity prices.
Germany now gets 17 per cent of its electricity from renewable energies, 13 per cent from natural gas and more than 40 per cent from coal. The Environment Ministry says in 10 years renewable energy will contribute 40 per cent of the country's overall electricity production.
The government has been vague on a total price tag for the transition, but it said last year about $28 billion US a year will be needed, acknowledging that $107 billion US alone will be required through 2030 to install offshore wind farms.
Last year, German investment in renewable energy topped $37 billion US and secured 370,000 jobs, the government said.
After taking seven reactors off the grid last week, officials hinted the oldest of them may remain switched off for good, but assured consumers there are no worries about electricity shortages as the country is a net exporter.
"We can guarantee that the lights won't go off in Germany," Environment Ministry spokeswoman Christiane Schwarte said.
Most of the country's leaders now seem determined to swiftly abolish nuclear power, possibly by 2020, and several conservative politicians, including the chancellor, have made a complete U-turn on the issue.
Vice Chancellor Guido Westerwelle said Wednesday "we must learn from Japan" and check the safety of the country's reactors but also make sure viable alternatives are in place.
"It would be the wrong consequence if we turn off the safest atomic reactors in the world, and then buy electricity from less-safe reactors in foreign countries," he told the Passauer Neue Presse newspaper.