- Associated Press - Monday, May 30, 2011

BERLIN — Germany’s government said Monday that it will shut down all the country’s nuclear power plants by 2022.

The decision, prompted by Japan’s nuclear disaster, will make Germany the first major industrialized nation in years to go nuclear-free.

It also completes a remarkable about-face for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right government, which late last year pushed through a plan to extend the life spans of the country’s 17 reactors - with the last scheduled to go offline around 2036.

Mrs. Merkel now says the helplessness of industrialized, technologically advanced Japan in the face of the Fukushima disaster made her rethink the risks of the technology.

Overcoming nuclear power within a decade will be a challenge for Europe’s biggest economy, but it will be feasible and ultimately give Germany a competitive advantage in the renewable-energy era, Mrs. Merkel said.

“As the first big industrialized nation, we can achieve such a transformation toward efficient and renewable energies, with all the opportunities that brings for exports, developing new technologies and jobs,” Merkel told reporters.

Germany was set to abandon nuclear energy eventually, but the decision - which still requires parliamentary approval - speeds up that process dramatically.

“We don’t only want to renounce nuclear energy by 2022, we also want to reduce our CO2 emissions by 40 percent and double our share of renewable energies, from about 17 percent today to then 35 percent,” the chancellor said.

The country’s energy supply chain “needs a new architecture,” necessitating huge efforts in boosting renewable energies, efficiency gains and overhauling the electricity grid, Mrs. Merkel said.

The cornerstones of Germany’s energy policy will be a safe and steady power supply that doesn’t rely on imports, affordable prices that don’t disadvantage industry or heavily burden consumers, and making sure that Germany’s carbon emissions keep diminishing, Mrs. Merkel said.

The 2022 deadline is fixed, with no conditions attached that might allow a policy reverse, Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen added.

Germany’s seven oldest reactors, taken off the grid pending safety inspections after the March catastrophe at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, will remain offline permanently, he said. The plants accounted for about 40 percent of the country’s nuclear power capacity.

The determination of Germany, the world’s fourth-largest economy, to gradually replace its nuclear power with renewable energy sources makes it stand out among the world’s major industrialized nations.

Among other Group of Eight nations, only Italy has abandoned nuclear power, which was voted down in a referendum after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster - leading it to shut down its three operating reactors.

Until March - before the seven reactors were taken offline - less than a quarter of Germany’s electricity was produced by nuclear power, about the same share as in the U.S.

Many Germans have vehemently opposed nuclear power since Chernobyl sent radioactivity over the country. Tens of thousands of people repeatedly took to the streets after Fukushima to urge the government to shut all reactors quickly.

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