Merkel mothballs seven reactors pending safety checks

Merkel mothballs seven reactors pending safety checks

Seven of Germany's oldest nuclear power plants will be mothballed while the government launches a safety inspection of all its nuclear plants, the government announced Tuesday, in the wake of growing meltdown fears in Japan, dpa reported

The move represents a dramatic political climbdown for Chancellor Angela Merkel, who last autumn pushed through a measure to extend the lifetimes of several reactors despite widespread opposition.

"I can't give any clear statement on closures," she said. "But I don't rule out any consequences."

The announcement came ahead of three state elections this month, in which the nuclear issue could tip the balance against Merkel's centre-right coalition. A majority of Germans oppose nuclear energy.

Given growing fears of a Japanese nuclear meltdown in reactors damaged by a massive earthquake on Friday, German officials said the priority is now to guarantee safety in Germany's nuclear network.

"What risks are we prepared to take in future and which are we socially no longer prepared to tolerate?" said Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen.

Markus Soeder, environment minister of the southern state of Bavaria - which has more reactors than any other state - said the review would have to cover everything from natural disasters to terrorism.

"Japan changes everything," he said. "Nature has developed its own script."

Shutting down old plants was "an important and plausible sign that we now understand the security issues and are taking them seriously," Soeder said.

Nuclear power stations built before 1980 are thought to be insufficiently protected against terrorist attacks in the form of a targeted plane crash, making them priorities for temporary closure.

Merkel had already announced Monday a three-month moratorium on the decision last autumn to extend the lifetime of Germany's nuclear power generators.

On Tuesday, she said the seven plants constructed before 1980 would be shut down for the duration of the moratorium. The remaining 10 plants active in Germany will be subject to thorough safety reviews. At least one of those is currently not operating due to pre-existing problems.

Shortly after the announcement, several operators of the plants on the list of seven announced they would be shuttering. Two of the plants - Isar I in Bavaria and Neckarwestheim I in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg - will shut down permanently.

While the news bought some cheer to environmental groups that have agitated for years for a nuclear-free Germany, others argued that a moratorium on an extension of the use of nuclear power fell far short of their demands.

"This isn`t even about shutting down one of the oldest nuclear power plants," said Renate Kuenast, head of the Green Party parliamentary delegation. "During this three-month moratorium, the seven oldest ones will just be taken out of service and subjected to a security check."

She accused Merkel of pulling a political stunt and said the seven oldest reactors should be shut down completely.

But energy industry officials warned that eradicating nuclear energy from Germany would invariably lead to higher prices than Germans might be willing to pay.

"In an industrial country, you can't simply do without coal and nuclear energy if you want to keep your standard of living and supply security," Juergen Grossman, head of energy company RWE, told Die Zeit newspaper.

Hans-Peter Keitel, president of the Federation of German Industry, cautioned against any rushed judgment.

"Policy makers should be careful to make judgments on the basis of facts. If these facts are not known, then they have to take the time necessary to make a sound decision."

The second part of the plan announced Tuesday calls for accelerated research into the transition to alternative energy sources.

"We want to use the time of the moratorium to speed up our energy transition," said Merkel.

But several government officials stressed that a move to renewable energy sources, be they wind or solar, will come to little if there are no efforts to bulk up Germany's energy transmission network. Ministers noted broad opposition to efforts to lay more energy lines.

"We need more acceptance for the expansion of the network," said Economics Minister Rainer Bruederle.

Merkel said ministers and industry executives would have their next meeting on Germany's nuclear plans on March 22.

While Merkel stressed that her government's quick response was a direct consequence of events in Japan, the nuclear issue is a sensitive one ahead of this month`s three state elections.

These include the prosperous southern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, where one of the main challengers to Merkel`s centre-right coalition is the anti-nuclear Green Party.

Germany's decision came as European Union energy ministers were also meeting on nuclear safety. dpa hl bw wd ncs hm mat Author: Niels C Sorrells

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