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Can Renewables Fill the Gap When Nukes Go Offline?

German is set to phase out nuclear energy, but what will pick up the slack? How much will renewable energy expand? How quickly? And who will pay?

Berlin, Germany — German Chancellor Angela Merkel signed off today on a ‪ bill‬ phasing out all nuclear energy in Germany by the end of 2022, underscoring the economic and environmental benefits of this shift.

Merkel had announced the decision last Monday (May 30) after more than 100,000 people protested nuclear energy in over 20 cities across Germany on May 28. In Berlin alone, over 20,000 demonstrated.

Merkel’s decision marks a reversal of her previous policy. Last fall, she had announced that she would extend the life span of nuclear plants by 12 years on average.

Yet in the face of the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster in Japan in March and increasing and widespread public opposition to nuclear energy in Germany, she changed her mind, announcing that Germany would take the seven oldest of its 17 nuclear power plants off the grid for three months, conduct a safety review of its nuclear power plants and review its energy policy.

A precedent for her most recent nuclear policy had been set in 200, when the coalition government of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Alliance 90/The Greens decided to phase out nuclear power plants by 2020.

Germany's four leading nuclear-producing energy firms — Eon, RWE, EnBw and Swedish-based Vattenfall — have cried foul. RWE has already filed a lawsuit against the German government's prior three-month moratorium.

Eon is also considering filing a lawsuit against the continuation of the nuclear fuel tax. The tax was introduced as a part of austerity measures ratified last year. It will raise funds to help the German government reduce its public debt. When Merkel announced her decision to phase out nuclear energy last week, she stated that the nuclear fuel tax would remain on the books, increasing the ire of the four leading energy firms.

The four energy firms furthermore warn that Germany could face widespread winter blackouts if Merkel phases out nuclear power. But a recent study conducted by German Watch challenges that argument.

Merkel’s decision marks a major shift in nuclear energy policy that could have worldwide implications, given that Germany is the largest developed country to phase out nuclear energy and is the world's fifth largest consumer of nuclear energy in terms of megawatts consumed, after the US, France, Japan and Russia.

Merkel is not alone in her retreat from nuclear energy. Just a week prior to Germany’s decision, after anti-nuclear demonstrations of 20,000 people, Switzerland, too, decided to shelve plans to continue nuclear energy.

The country’s five existing reactors will remain in operation until the end of their lifespan, with the last one being decommissioned in 2034. Nuclear energy provides about 40 percent of Switzerland’s current energy, needs that Switzerland states will be met by increased renewable energy.

And in Italy, too, a referendum on nuclear energy stands before the voters. Following the Chernobyl disaster in 1987, Italy shut down its four nuclear power plants. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi reversed this decision in 2008.

Although Berlusconi, too, announced a moratorium on his plans for new nuclear power plants in response to Fukushima, he intended to carry out the construction of new plants. Yet last week, the Italian Appeals Courts announced that elections will take place this weekend, on June 12 and 13, with a referendum on Berlusconi’s nuclear power on the ballots.

Later this month, June 28-29, the first European regulatory conference will take place to discuss safety regulations and also the challenges the nuclear industry in Europe will face over the next 10 years.

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