Coauthored by Paige Andrews and Marie Karaisl.

Zeilitzheim church with Grafenrheinfeld nuclear power plant

Zeilitzheim church with Grafenrheinfeld nuclear power plant in distance (image by: Barock Schloss).

In a drastic reversal of policy, Germany has announced that it will shut down all of its nuclear reactors by 2022 in the wake of the Fukushima plant disaster in Japan.

After the initial announcement, the government last week discussed the detailed drafts for the laws with the heads of Germany’s 16 states who successfully pushed for a step-by-step shut down between 2015 and 2022. As of June 3rd, eight of Germany’s oldest nuclear reactors will remain permanently shut, with seven having been closed temporarily in March following the Japan earthquake and tsunami and another out of use due to technical issues. For the remaining nine reactors a fixed date will be set for their shut-down in the years 2015, 2017, 2019, 2021 and 2022. In order to hedge against possible blackouts especially during cold winter months, a “cold reserve” will be provided in the form of gas and coal, rather than, as previously thought, in the form of a nuclear power plant on stand-by.

The decision to close the reactors by Chancellor Angela Merkel is an about-turn of an unpopular decision only months earlier to extend the life of nuclear stations despite majority opposition. Prior to the three month shut down of Germany’s oldest plants, atomic energy made up nearly a quarter of the country’s power.

Again, this new decision is met by hefty critique coming from the opposition parties and industry and even from within the ruling coalition’s own ranks. The main opposition parties, the social democrats (SPD) and the Green Party fear not only loopholes that could ultimately reverse or water down the decision, but also warn of the short and long run consequences the decision could have on competitiveness and the economy, worries that are shared by some representatives  of the ruling coalition. More specifically, there are worries that the necessary government interventions to boost renewable energy generation in order to avoid the substitution of clean nuclear energy with “dirty” conventional sources, will reverse the liberalization of the energy market to the detriment of economy and consumers.

In fact, this quick exit from nuclear power, even if technologically possible, is likely to be very costly. In order to compensate for nuclear energy that provides 22% of Germany’s electricity, the government will need to financially incentivize large scale investments in renewable energies, costs that will ultimately be borne by industry and the consumer. Moreover, nuclear energy providers such as Vattenfall, RWE and Eon are claiming compensation for the losses they will incur due to the premature shut-down of their plants. Yet, the legal basis for these claims will only be analyzed once the respective laws have been passed in parliament.

So far, Germany’s citizens seem to support the move. Demonstrations against nuclear energy took place this past weekend across Germany, attended by tens of thousands of people, yet the question is whether people are actually fully aware of the costs and the technical, political and even environmental difficulties that the successful exit from nuclear power imply?

Considering this, it is of no surprise that Klaus Ernst of the socialist party Die Linke calls for a referendum that will allow consumers and tax payers to more actively participate in the decision making. Although, this idea has not been taken up by the ruling coalition, a referendum in favor of a quick exit could bolster the legitimacy of the project, once the costs become apparent.

According to schedule, the draft strategy and respective laws to exit nuclear power will be presented in the German parliament (Bundestag) today, Thursday June 9.

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