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Germany Tilting Balance Of Nuclear Power, Which is Seen As Growing Option in EU     Print Email

Germany’s decision to extend the licenses of the country’s 17 nuclear plants – and thus delay a long-planned calendar for a phase-out of nuclear-generated electricity -- reflects a wider and growing shift across Europe in favor of the nuclear option as a key component of countries’ energy mix.

The shift announced in Berlin last week is a bell-weather. Germany, influenced by a strong anti-nuclear Green party, has made the country, which is Europe’s manufacturing and economic powerhouse, into a bastion of political opposition to nuclear power, both in Germany and elsewhere in the EU.

Attitudes are changing now, spurred by Chancellor Angela Merkel (who has a background in nuclear engineering), because of two factors: it offers a low-cost, reliable alternative for generating electricity in the place of imported natural gas from Russia, and many environmentalists are increasingly inclined to support the nuclear option as a reliable energy source that does not emit greenhouse gases.

There is an inherited divide between the two sides of Europe on this issue, with eastern member states (formerly Soviet satellites) favoring continued and expanded reliance on nuclear power as a stable (and non-polluting) option (as described in a recent Institute blog post). But the trend has been different in the old EU member states. In the 1980s, Italy dismantled its nuclear plants (and now imports electricity from France’s nuclear program); Sweden voted against more plants; and Germany went even further when in 1998, its Social Democrat government (in coalition with the Greens) passed legislation to phase out all the country’s nuclear plants.

The main exception to this trend has been France, which continues to get nearly three-fourth of its electricity from its 58 nuclear reactors. They constitute nearly a third of Europe’s total park of 163 reactors (15% of Europe’s electricity comes from nuclear energy, 20% in the U.S. and 78% in France), but now “new-build” has resumed in France and elsewhere in Europe, where there are eight reactors under construction – one in France, one in Finland, two in Slovakia, and two in Bulgaria. (In Russia, a country with the continent’s second largest nuclear-power industry, most of the 31 reactors were given 15-25 year extensions in 2000.)

Other indicators point the same way. Recently, Sweden – which depends on nuclear energy for nearly half its electricity -- voted to resume the construction of new reactors. Italy has lifted its ban on construction of new reactors, and Rome has begun collaborating with France to build eight to ten nuclear reactors. Both in Sweden and in Italy, the governments view nuclear power as indispensable for their economies until new ultra-low-carbon technologies have proven themselves capable of providing the "base load" power that is needed for interrupted power to homes and factories.

Germany – and its all-powerful economy -- remains the pivotal EU state in this debate. Merkel, a Christian Democrat, has vowed to overturn the ban (instituted by an earlier Social Democrat-Green coalition). In her first step, extending the licensed life of the current plants for another decade, she cited economic benefits. They can continue supplying very cheap electricity since these plants are all fully amortized. In the process, the utilities stand to reap annual profits that could reach €2.3 billion, so part of the Merkel initiative is a windfall profits tax (and some new fees) designated to promote renewable energy sources. Merkel defends nuclear power as a “bridging technology” to make the transition to an era of renewable energy. Still today, the main alternative to nuclear power in Germany is coal, the fossil fuel deemed the main source of global warming.

Opposition Social Democrats and other green-oriented groups have vowed to oppose the new plan, but the leadership of Merkel’s coalition government seem convinced that they now have reversed the old German momentum on this issue. They vow to press ahead with efforts to prolong (and perhaps one day even expand) Germany’s nuclear industry – both for economic viability, energy security and as a way of accelerating Germany’s progress on its agenda for combating climate change.

Critics of this scenario of a “nuclear renaissance” say that this snapshot of German changes may lead people to exaggerate the overall trends toward greater nuclear energy use. Despite the shift in Germany, across Europe 100 older (and mostly smaller) reactors are slated for closure over the next 10 to 15 years.