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Germany’s Nuclear Abandonment Called Into Question

Germany is facing the prospect of power shortages and a winter blackout unless it restarts a mothballed nuclear plant, raising doubts over the government’s plans to move the country away from atomic energy in the next decade.

The German Federal Network Agency, the body responsible for power supply, warned the country could face power shortages come the winter unless there is sufficient power generating capacity in reserve.

In the wake of the Fukishima nuclear disaster, Germany shut down seven ageing reactors and committed itself to phasing out all of its 17 reactors by 2022 in a move that would make it the first major industrial power to turn its back on nuclear energy.

But Matthias Kurth, head of the network agency, said one of plants now closed may have to be brought back on line.

“The numbers that we currently have indicate that one of these nuclear energy plants will be needed,” he said in Berlin while giving details on a government-commissioned report into energy supply, although he added that it would only be a “temporary solution”.

The news will come as an embarrassment to the German government, as well as cast fresh doubts over the country’s ability to replace the 23 per cent of energy production currently accounted for by atomic power with renewable energy and greater efficiency.

Although Chancellor Angela Merkel has promised to invest millions of euros in scaling up renewable energy supply and improving efficiency, the industry has already voiced fears that power shortages might hamper Germany’s economic growth and increase costs.

Critics of the move have also argued that going nuclear free will just increase German dependency on fossil fuels, enlarge its carbon footprint and derail national targets to cut carbon emissions.

This criticism gained extra credence this week after reports disclosed that the government has earmarked £143 million to subsidise the construction of new coal and gas fired power stations in 2013 and 2014.

Dieter Zetsche, chief executive of industrial titan Daimler, said “Germany was turning its back on cheap energy” and uncertainty over energy supplies and costs will cloud decision making. He also issued a grim warning, saying that higher energy costs could force some industry to follow the lead of energy intensive sectors and leave Germany. “The question is whether in the future, production that is less energy intensive will also have to be relocated abroad,” he said.

Adding to the government’s woes were further comments by Mr Kurth, who explained a fossil-fuelled energy reserve “was not a viable option” when it came providing winter cover as the decommissioned plants that could be reactivated were too old.

Further complicating the issue were statements from the Green Party questioning the viability of using a nuclear power plant to generate extra capacity in winter.

Green politician Barbel Hoehn said it would cost £40 million to restart the reactor and that all that all it would only provide “high risks, high costs and no benefits.”

He also questioned “whether a nuclear plant can provide power precisely because it takes several days to start.”

“To make up for the shortfall in energy, money should be concentrated on energy efficiency,” she added. “Saving electricity is the cheapest and most sensible way to replace nuclear power.”

The Green Party insists there is enough energy in the current system to stave off power cuts as long as efficiency is improved.

The network agency explained that the risk of winter power cuts was highest in southern Germany due to the higher number of reactors taken offline, strong industrial demand and a lack of wind power capacity.

In response to the agency’s report Sabine Heimbach, a spokesman for the federal government, said it would assess the findings “and deal with the issues”.

The Daily Telegraph, 14 July 2011