Germany’s Environment Minister, Norbert Roettgen, just announced that the government has decided to permanently shut down all nuclear reactors by the year 2022. This announcement marks the end of the government’s official review of energy policy which began in March. The review was launched in the wake of the earthquake and resulting nuclear disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactor on March 11th, 2011. This decision comes only months after Chancellor Angela Merkel opted to extend the life of Germany’s current reactors past their original termination dates by an average of twelve years. This decision, which was handed down at the end of 2010, was unpopular with Germans even before the disaster in Japan. Germany will be the first major economic power to abandon nuclear power.
Nuclear power plants generate electricity through nuclear fission. The nuclear fission, which is typically powered by uranium, heats water to the point of evaporation. The resulting steam turns turbines, and those turbines power electric generators. Nuclear power currently accounts for 22% of Germany’s overall energy mix. It has been a highly controversial topic for decades, and the recent events in Japan have sparked international protest against nuclear power. Those who are against nuclear power assert that Fukushima once again proves the dangerous nature of the plants. This spring also marks the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, whose effects are still evident in Ukraine. Protesters in France and Germany were heard chanting “Chernobyl, Fukushima, never again.”
Of the 17 reactors that currently exist in Germany, seven are already off of the power grid. They will remain inactive. Six other reactors are scheduled to go offline by 2021, if not earlier. The final three will follow by 2022. As nuclear power supplied nearly a quarter of the country’s energy needs, many wonder how the gap in demand will be met. Germany does rely on alternative energy sources for a significant amount of its power, approximately 17%. No other country in the world is utilizing alternative energy to the same extent. However, it is unlikely that an increase in alternative energy alone will be able to compensate for all of the energy provided by nuclear power. Instead, consumption of coal is all but guaranteed to increase in Germany, and that means more pollution and carbon will be released into the atmosphere. While green solutions, such as increasing the number of wind farms, are on the table, every source of energy has its pros and cons. Residents throughout the Rennsteig, a ridge of forests and hills in the center of the country where wind farming would be ideal, worry about the harm that pylons may cause to birds and the disruption to the landscape.
While Germany is the first country to decide to close the door on nuclear power, it is not the only country where the disaster in Japan has renewed opposition to nuclear reactors. It is predicted that many planned nuclear reactor projects will either be stalled or altogether canceled in reaction to the events that unfolded in Japan this March. Professor Claudia Kemfert of Berlin’s Institute of Economic Research believes that coal use will increase across the globe in response to the disaster. However, Yukiya Amano, who is the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency stated that he expects “between 10 and 25 new countries to bring their first nuclear power plant online by 2030.” With global energy consumption predicted to increase a staggering 49% by 2035, governments all over the world will have to reexamine their stance on nuclear power, and figure out a way to meet demand if they decide to follow in the footsteps of Germany.
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