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Off the grid

March 15, 2011

Chancellor Angela Merkel announced Tuesday that her government is taking the seven oldest German nuclear power plants off the grid, at least temporarily, following a meeting with five state premiers.

Angela Merkel
Merkel's move is a U-turn in her energy policyImage: AP

Chancellor Angela Merkel announced Tuesday that seven of Germany's 17 nuclear power stations would be shut down, at least until the end of a three-month moratorium on the extension of the lifespans of Germany's nuclear stations.

The decision was made as a direct result of the nuclear disaster currently unfolding at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan.

Anti-nuclear protest balloon
The mood in Germany is swinging against nuclear powerImage: picture alliance/dpa

The shutdown affects those power stations that were put into operation before the end of 1980. In addition, all of Germany's nuclear power stations would undergo new safety tests. Merkel promised that by the end of the moratorium, due to run out by June 15, "all safety questions would be answered."

"We want to use the time of the moratorium to accelerate the energy conversion [towards renewable sources]," Merkel said at the press conference. "That means we will look at the infrastructure of that conversion, analyze it, and see where there are opportunities to accelerate it. We will also look again at how we can provide more support to renewable energy."

Apart from the chancellor, the meeting was attended by Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, Economics Minister Rainer Brüderle, as well as the state premiers of the five states where nuclear power stations are located: Baden-Württemberg, Schleswig-Holstein, Hesse, Lower Saxony and Bavaria.

Brüderle said that while the move could result in price-hikes on electricity bills, there would be no shortfall in the energy supply. Claudia Kemfert, energy spokeswoman at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), told Reuters news agency that this depended on how long the power plants would be off the grid. "In the short term, you can remove up to four or five nuclear reactors from the grid," she said.

Election motives

The political opposition views Merkel's moratorium as an election campaign maneuver. It means that no decision will be made on the future of nuclear power in Germany until after five crucial state elections: in Saxony-Anhalt, on March 20, in Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Hesse, all on March 27, and in Bremen on May 22.

Biblis nuclear power station
Both Biblis power stations in Hesse are to shut down immediatelyImage: AP

Sigmar Gabriel, head of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) was withering on Merkel's new plan: "She claimed then that all safety concerns in German nuclear power stations had been cleared up, and she claimed we needed nuclear power in Germany. Now we know that none of that was true."

"Suddenly seven nuclear power stations can be shut down without any problem ensuring supply," Gabriel continued. "And suddenly they're not so safe. It would have been more appropriate to check safety before you extend lifespans."

There has been particular attention paid to the Neckarwestheim power plant in Baden-Württemberg, focus of a 60,000-strong demonstration at the weekend. Baden-Württemberg Premier Stefan Mappus, considered a supporter of nuclear power, announced that the older of the two reactors at Neckarwestheim, which went into operation in 1976, would be shut down permanently.

The effect of Japan's unfolding nuclear catastrophe on Germans could not be clearer. After the protests in Baden-Württemberg on Saturday, an estimated 110,000 people demonstrated in 450 German towns on Monday against the extension of nuclear power.

Opinion polls suggest that up to 80 percent of Germans are now against Merkel's decision to extend nuclear power, while 72 percent said Germany's seven oldest reactors needed to be shut down immediately.

The seven reactors to be shut down immediately are Neckarwestheim 1, Philippsburg 1 (in Baden-Württemberg), Biblis A und B (Hesse), Isar 1 (Bavaria), Unterweser (Lower Saxony) and Brunsbüttel (Schleswig-Holstein).

In addition to Neckarwestheim 1, the Isar and Brünsbüttel reactors are likely to remain closed permanently. An eighth reactor, Krümmel (Schleswig-Holstein), which is currently closed after breakdowns, will probably never be reconnected.

Germany's nuclear power stations currently provide around 23 percent of the country's electricity.

Author: Ben Knight (Reuters, dpa)
Editor: Michael Lawton