The pundits who said last month that the nuclear events in Fukushima would have no lasting consequences were mistaken. In Fukushima itself, of course, the situation is a disaster — the city may be too dangerous to occupy for a year or longer. And halfway around the world, the Fukushima disaster tipped the political balance in Germany. There, in February and March, the pro-business government had barely fended off the country’s safety and financial concerns in order to work out a deal that would effectively have extended its nuclear program indefinitely, overriding a previous plan that would have had the aging German nuclear power plants carry on for only nine more years.
But then, Fukushima. A new public outcry. A safety review. Mass protests across the country. And today, the announcement that half of Germany’s nuclear power plants are closed. This includes seven that may be too old to operate safely and one that has had recurring operational difficulties. They have been offline and cooling down for a month during the safety review, and the public policy interpretation of the review is it is safer not to restart them. One of them will be kept on standby for a few years for extra power on cold winter days, but I do not imagine it will actually be restarted during that period.
The other part of the announcement concerns the nine newer plants in Germany. They are set to go offline between now and 2021, with a one-year extension likely for the three newest. Eleven years from now, according to the plan, Germany will no longer be generating nuclear power.
Critics point out that Germany has had to replace 10 percent of its electric power already because of the nuclear shutdown, and it will have to replace another 10 percent by 2021 as the remaining plants go offline. But in truth, Germany will save a fortune by investing in small-scale, inexpensive forms of electric power in place of its nuclear power stations. And it will save even more if it undertakes a meticulous, Scandinavian-style approach to energy conservation.
Considering all that there is to be gained from that transition, if the political opposition gains power in Germany, the nuclear phase-out is likely to happen a few years sooner.
One issue that Germany did not consider, for example, is the coming shortage of nuclear fuel, which some in the uranium trade believe could arrive as soon as next year. Probably dozens of countries will complete construction on nuclear power stations in the 2020s but be unable to fuel them. Germany might well choose to shut its reactors down early in order to sell off its remaining nuclear fuel.