European Responses: Germany

From the Wall Street Journal . . .

MARCH 15, 2011, 12:49 P.M. ET

Germany to Shut Seven Reactors


BERLIN—Germany said it would shut down its seven oldest nuclear reactors during a three-month “safety review,” a surprise reversal by Chancellor Angela Merkel whose government just months ago vouched for the plants’ safety.

Ms. Merkel’s center-right government, which already said on Monday that it would suspend a lifespan extension for country’s nuclear reactors, responded to growing public unease over nuclear power amid the Japanese crisis by agreeing to shut down the oldest of those plants. The sudden shift reflects concern within Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic party that it has been on the wrong side of an emotional political issue that analysts say could tip the balance in several upcoming regional elections.

Ms. Merkel said production at seven reactors built before 1980 will be wound down before June 15 as the government reviews a plan it set last fall to extend the life of some of the country’s 17 reactors by as much as 14 years. The government said it hasn’t decided whether to restart the plants after the moratorium, but given the deep public skepticism over the aging plants, bringing them back online would be extremely controversial.

“I can’t make a definitive statement on life-span extensions today—we don’t know what the result of our safety review will be,” Ms. Merkel said after meeting with governors from the five states that are home to nuclear reactors.

Two of those states are holding elections this month, including a crucial test for Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrat Union in Baden-Württemberg. A local development dispute has shaken more than five decades of conservative rule in the wealthy southwestern state, and analysts say voter displeasure with the CDU’s embrace of nuclear power could tip an evenly split electorate in favor of the center-left Social Democrats and environmentalist Greens.

Opposition politicians painted Ms. Merkel’s three-month review as pandering to a public whose longstanding fears of nuclear power appear validated by the disaster in Japan, and predicted that she will simply reinstate plans to extend reactors’ lives after the elections.

“She wants to get through the regional elections—it’s a tactical play on people’s worries and fears,” said Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the Social Democrats.

Answering her critics, Ms. Merkel said her policy shift was “completely coherent” in light of the unfolding tragedy in Japan. “The motivation for this review, regardless of whether there are elections in one state or another, is evident,” Ms. Merkel said.

All four utilities that operate nuclear plants in Germany–E.ON AG, RWE AG, EnBW Energie Baden-Württemberg AG and Vattenfall Europe—run at least one of the affected plants, and their closure will cost the country some 7.4 gigawatts of power production, about 5% of the national total.

Two of the affected plants were already closed for repairs, and EnBW Energie Baden-Württemberg said Tuesday that it would quickly wind down production at two more. One, in Baden-Württemberg, probably won’t reopen because the cost of renovations could make it unprofitable, the company said.

RWE said that it would wind down production at an older reactor in the Rhine valley immediately, but challenged the government’s mandated shut-down, saying its “nuclear power stations work at maximum safety levels and that, from a safety perspective, the company sees no necessity to call the lifetime extension into general question.”

Meanwhile, the French government said Tuesday that it would conduct safety inspections at each of the country’s nuclear power plants as it looks to assuage growing fears over the security of France’s biggest source of electricity.

During Parliamentary questions about Japan’s nuclear disaster, French Prime Minister François Fillon pledged to ignore “none of the issues raised by this catastrophe.” He added that safety practices at all of France’s 58 nuclear power plants would be rigorously reviewed.

“We need to take into consideration all that happened in Japan,” he said. “What level of earthquake can our nuclear power plants sustain? What level of water can they resist? We are going to measure all this in total transparency.”

Following the earthquake in Japan, France’s green party, Europe Ecologie, has been campaigning for a referendum on the use of nuclear power in the country.

The French government invested heavily in nuclear power after the 1970s oil crises. The country now boasts the largest number of nuclear power plants in Europe and is home to Areva SA, one of the world’s biggest nuclear power companies by revenue. Currently nuclear power generates around 80% of France’s electricity.

“Telling French people that we are going to move away from nuclear would be lying to them,” said French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé, on French radio Europe 1. Renewable energy will provide no more than 20% of the country’s energy needs in the coming years, Mr. Juppé said. “It would take decades to abandon nuclear energy.”


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