OSLO (Reuters) – A German plan to shut all nuclear reactors by 2022 is unlikely to inspire many imitators abroad even though safety worries after Japan’s Fukushima accident have dimmed nuclear industry hopes of a renaissance, experts say.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phase-out plan risks boosting greenhouse gas emissions by aiding fossil fuel producers despite her assurances of a renewed drive to promote greener energies such as wind and solar power, they said.
“Most other countries are saying, ‘Let’s take a pause and learn lessons after Fukushima’, not ‘Let’s close down nuclear power’,” said Malcolm Grimston, a nuclear expert at the Chatham House think-tank in Britain.
“Germany is a special case, Merkel is in a special position,” he said. Merkel’s abrupt shift follows disastrous election results for her Christian Democrats and their Free Democrat allies, partly blamed on her former pro-nuclear views.
He predicted her plan could face legal challenges, perhaps from German utilities such as E.ON and RWE, damaged by closures. Beneficiaries might include French or Polish electricity generators that could export to Germany.
Hans Blix, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said he stuck to a view after Merkel’s plan that the Fukushima disaster would prove to be a “bump in the road, but not the end of the road” for atomic power around the world.
“I think it is an unwise decision but, perhaps in the circumstances of the German public opinion, almost inevitable,” he told Reuters.
Switzerland also plans to phase out nuclear power and Italy, the only non-nuclear Group of Eight nation, has shelved plans to build reactors. But many others, such as the United States, China, Britain and France, have remained broadly in support.
“Germany is most sensitive” to public opinion against nuclear power, said Seppo Vuori, a nuclear expert at the VTT Technical Research Center of Finland and an author on the panel of U.N. climate scientists.
The Fukushima nuclear accident in March, triggered by an earthquake and tsunami, was the most serious since the Chernobyl reactor exploded in the former Soviet Union in 1986 and has prompted widespread calls for tighter safety rules.
On its website, the industry-backed World Nuclear Association speaks of a “nuclear renaissance” despite Fukushima.
It says atomic power can help meet increasing global energy demand, fight climate change and reduce reliance on imported energy. Nuclear power reactors account for far less greenhouse gases than fossil fuel plants over their lifetimes.
According to the IAEA, there are 64 nuclear reactors under construction worldwide, 27 of them in China and 11 in Russia. That is up from about 33 in 2007, Grimston said.
Sven Teske, a renewable energy expert at Greenpeace, said that “27 in China sounds a lot but it’s not much compared to the 350 coal-fired plants” built over a decade in China.
“I don’t think we have a nuclear renaissance, maybe a renaissance of nuclear PR (public relations),” he said.
The IAEA says that 440 reactors are in operation worldwide, led by 104 in the United States and 58 in France.
Teske said that Germany now had the opportunity to push hard for more renewable energies to help combat global warming. Merkel’s coalition said it would cut power use by 10 percent by 2020 and further expand renewables.
Blix said that Germany’s nuclear exit could bring higher greenhouse gas emissions, which are blamed for warming the planet in a trend the United Nations says will cause more floods, droughts and rising sea levels.
“It’s likely to mean higher carbon dioxide emissions,” Vuori agreed.
Governments agreed last December at U.N. talks in Mexico to limit a rise in world temperatures to below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6F) above pre-industrial times to slow global warming.
But the United Nations says that promises so far for cutting greenhouse gas emissions are far too small to meet that goal despite aggressive cuts by countries including Germany. That makes nuclear power attractive to some.
Last week, Merkel and other leaders at a G8 summit called for “comprehensive risk and safety assessments” of existing nuclear plants and tough standards for construction in areas prone to hazards such as earthquakes or tsunamis.
In a line delicately balancing the views of all G8 members, it said that “countries have different approaches…including the phasing-in or the phasing-out” of nuclear power.
(With extra reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; editing by Mark Heinrich)
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