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Science

German nuclear exit possible by 2017, research body says

Germany could cover its energy needs without nuclear power by 2017, the research group for the environment ministry has said. It added that by 2050, all the country's energy needs could be covered by renewables.

The Philippsburg 1 nuclear facility

The Philippsburg 1 plant in Germany is going offline

The research group that answers scientific questions for the German environment ministry, the Umweltbundesamt, has calculated that the country could complete its exit from nuclear energy by as early as 2017 and that consumers would not see an appreciable increase in their energy bills.

The German government, in the wake of the nuclear crisis in Japan, ordered the shut-down of the seven oldest of the country's 17 nuclear power plants.

Chancellor Angela Merkel also slapped a three-month moratorium on the government's decision last fall to extend the lives of its nuclear plants, reversing a decision by the previous government to end the country's nuclear program by 2021.

On Thursday, Merkel announced a "measured exit" to nuclear power, telling parliament that the goal was "to reach the age of renewable energy as soon as possible."

Chancellor Merkel addressd parliament on the nuclear issue

Chancellor Merkel addressd parliament on the nuclear issue

While that age has often been considered to be somewhere in the more distant future, the government now appears to want to speed it along, and experts say it could now be right on the horizon.

That is likely to please a majority of Germans, who are opposed to nuclear power. And it is a stark reversal for the government, which has always insisted that extending nuclear reactors' lifetimes was important, since nuclear energy served as a "bridge" to an eventual transition to renewable energy sources.

Shorter path than expected

"Of course it's a bridge technology, the question is, how long is the bridge?" said Klaus Müschen, the head of the Umweltbundesamt's climate protection and energy section, in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

But he added the 2017 date his agency's calculations pointed to depend on continued progress in the renewable energy field.

"Other parts of the bridge are co-generation power stations or gas power stations, an expansion of renewable energy, a quicker adoption of energy-efficient technology, and in the end, energy savings in general," he said.

According to the agency, German power plants have an overcapacity of 15 gigawatts, which corresponds to the output of about 15 nuclear power plants. With increased efficiency across the board and further investment in such things as power transfer grids (which could better get power from wind farms in northern Germany to Bavaria, for example), the nuclear reactors would not be missed.

The Neckarwestheim reactor in Baden-Württemberg

The Neckarwestheim reactor in Baden-Württemberg is going dark, possible forever

"It could be that in the short term there are price increases, but in the medium and long term we think there will be enough capacity to take care of that," he said, cautioning however that price developments on the energy markets are notoriously difficult to predict.

Germany now gets about 22 percent of its power from nuclear generation. But that number already looks like it is fated to fall, permanently. Of the seven nuclear plants to be taken off line, according to state government officials, it is unlikely that any one of them will be powered up again.

Calls and e-mails to the German Atomic Forum, the lead nuclear energy lobby group, requesting comment were not answered.

Open markets

Klaus Jacob, who researches environmental policy at Berlin's Free University, agrees with the recent calculations, saying that technically it is certainly possible to leave the nuclear era behind by 2017.

It is economically feasible as well, he added, especially if countries in Europe begin thinking beyond their own borders.

"Energy markets need to be opened much more than they are now so that competition is encouraged," he told Deutsche Welle.

"We need competition between water power from Norway with offshore wind energy from Germany and solar from Spain. That hasn't been the case now, and that's why the prices (for renewables) are quite high."

a wind farm

Many experts predict wind will be the primary source of German electricty in the future

All-renewable future?

In addition to the 2017 date set for a possible nuclear-free Germany, the Umweltbundesamt said that by 2050, an energy landscape made up purely of renewable forms of power, without coal plants or nuclear reactors, was possible.

To achieve that, the agency said, the drive to renewables would have to be maintained, and in the transition phase, the capacity of some coal and natural gas power plants would have to be increased, for a time.

In fact, due to the nuclear closure, Germany will already have to raise power production from fossil fuels to compensate. The uncertainty over Merkel's nuclear plans pushed up the cost of carbon emission permits to their highest mark in two-and-a-half years.

"I hope we don't see a return to coal in the long run. The impetus has to be in the direction of renewables," said Jacobs. "But I am optimistic that the era is nuclear is over. The only question is whether it's in 2017 or, say, 2020."

Author: Kyle James
Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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