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Germany's nuclear shutdown: a costly gamble

Germany's nuclear shutdown: a costly gamble
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The Chernobyl disaster of April 1986 plunged the planet into a state of nuclear anguish. But long before high radiation levels were felt across Europe, Germany already had a long tradition of highly mobilised opposition to nuclear power.

By the early 1970s, the movement had already become fiercely vocal and highly organised. A particular hobbyhorse at the time of the Cold War was nuclear weapons.

Later, in the 1990s, the movement targeted the transport of nuclear waste. Demonstrators regularly formed human chains trying to block trainloads of containers – one of the more recent being dubbed “Chernobyl on wheels”.

Before Fukushima, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government intended to extend the lives of Germany’s nuclear power plants by an average of 12 years. In the face of massive public opposition, that policy has now been reversed. But how is the country to achieve its goal of replacing nuclear energy in little over a decade?

Currently, nuclear energy provides almost a quarter of Germany’s power, some way behind coal which provides more than 40 percent. Between them, renewable energy and gas supply a third of the country’s needs.

To replace nuclear with renewable energy would be the ideal solution, whether it comes from wind, the sun, wood, the earth or water. Germany is talking of raising these sources’ contributions to 35 percent by 2020.

At the moment wind power dominates the field, representing 6 percent of electricity production. The country is increasingly counting on offshore wind power. But in order to develop it, the network must be boosted; a costly operation.

Could fossil fuels come back into fashion as an even bigger provider of energy? Already nearly half Germany’s electricity comes from coal. But its extraction and use is not exactly ecological. More coal in the future would mean less chance of achieving the ambitious targets of reducing greenhouse gases.

The country would also risk consuming more gas, especially from Russia. Germany does not produce any, and so its dependence on energy from elsewhere would increase. As a precaution, the government is to keep a nuclear reactor on standby in case renewable energy fails to respond adequately to winter demand, and in case combustible fuels also fail to bridge any gap between demand and supply.

Exactly what is going to provide an alternative to nuclear energy in Germany is uncertain. That it is set to cost a fortune is perhaps more predictable. According to some sections of the German press, the figure could run as high as 40 billion euros.