March 23, 2011

Germany to stop using nuclear power

The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

"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.

But Schuetz insists that "we can replace nuclear energy even before 2020 with renewable energies, producing affordable and ecologically sound electricity."

But someone will have to foot the bill.

"Consumers must be prepared for significantly higher electricity prices in the future," said Wolfgang Franz, head of the government's independent economic advisory body. Merkel last week also warned that tougher safety rules for the remaining nuclear power plants "would certainly mean that electricity gets more expensive."

The German utilities' BDEW lobby group said long-term price effects could not be determined until the government spells out its nuclear reduction plans. Matthes' institute says phasing out nuclear power by 2020 is feasible by better capacity management and investment that would only lead to a price increase of 0.5 cents per kilowatt-hour.

In Germany, the producers of renewable energy — be it solar panels on a homeowner's rooftop or a farm of wind mills — are paid above-market prices to make sure their investment breaks even, financed by a 3.5 cents per kilowatt-hour tax paid by all electricity customers.

For a typical German family of four who pay about €1,000 ($1,420) a year to use about 4,500 kilowatt-hours, the tax amounts to €157 ($223).

The tax produced €8.2 billion ($11.7 billion) in Germany in 2010 and it is expected to top €13.5 billion ($19.2 billion) this year. The program — which has been copied by other countries and several U.S. states such as California — is the backbone of the country's transition toward renewable energies.

"Our ideas work. Exiting the nuclear age would also be possible in a country like the U.S.," Schuetz said.

Another factor likely to drive up electricity prices is that relying on renewable energies requires a huge investment in the electricity grid to cope with more decentralized and less reliable sources of power. Economy Minister Rainer Bruederle just announced legislation to speed up grid construction but gave no cost estimate.

And even if non-nuclear power is more expensive, Germans seeing images daily of Japan's crippled Fukushima nuclear complex seem willing to pay the higher price.

Ralph Kampwirth, spokesman for Lichtblick AG, Germany's biggest utility offering electricity exclusively from renewable sources, said since the Fukushima disaster it has been getting nearly three times more new clients than normal, up from 300 to more than 800 per day, despite prices slightly above average.

Sticking with nuclear power would also have its costs and require public funds.

The only two new nuclear reactors currently under construction in Europe, in France and in Finland, both have been plagued by long delays and seen costs virtually doubling, to around €4 billion ($5.7 billion) and €5.3 billion ($7.5 billion) respectively.

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