Germany votes on nuclear exit

Thu Jun 30, 2011 6:08am EDT

(Amends headline)

* Parliament votes on nuclear exit, renewable energy

* Europe worried about cost, security of German power

* Merkel's nuclear U-turn inspired by Fukushima crisis

By Stephen Brown and Vera Eckert

BERLIN, June 30 (Reuters) - Germany's parliament looked set on Thursday to approve an exit from nuclear energy by 2022, a U-turn by Chancellor Angela Merkel driven by Japan's Fukushima crisis and described by anti-nuclear opponents as a victory.

Calling it Merkel's "Waterloo", the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens said the nuclear phase-out vindicated three decades of bitter opposition to nuclear power in Germany.

But German industry and Germany's neighbours fear the chancellor's change of heart on nuclear plants -- late last year she called them safe and advocated keeping them open longer -- could imperil the power supply in Europe's biggest economy.

European Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger, speaking to a conference in Berlin as the Bundestag (lower house) debated a package of power laws nearby, said Germany's neighbours were worried about its programme of nuclear shutdowns by 2022.

He said closing the oldest eight of Germany's 17 nuclear plants after a tsunami hit Japan's Fukushima plant in March had already reduced the total European power supply by 2-3 percent, "which was manageable; the headlines were bigger than the cut".

But he added: "Europe must do what it can so the process of creeping de-industrialisation does not proceed." He urged Berlin to coordinate the nuclear exit with its European Union partners to ensure stable power supplies and stop costs from rising.

Merkel, a conservative with one eye on her own coalition's declining popularity and growing support for the Greens, has dismissed such worries, telling pro-nuclear neighbour France that Germany can get its power via renewable technology.

"This is more than consensus for a nuclear exit, this is consensus for a switch to renewable energy," she told the Bundestag, which was due to vote on a package of eight laws after the debate ends at around noon local time (1000 GMT).

"We want to remain an industrial nation and sustain growth. But we want to organise that growth so that we guarantee quality of life for coming generations as well," she said, adding that solar, wind and biofuel technology would provide the key.

OPPOSITION CLAIMS WIN

The opposition pushed through its own anti-nuclear power law when in government in 2002, but that was halted by Merkel last year -- until events in Japan "shocked" her, in her own words.

The main opposition SPD and Greens will only approve the nuclear exit law as the rest of the package does not go far or fast enough towards renewable energy and away from nuclear and carbon fuels for their liking.

But Merkel can push the rest of the energy reform laws with her own majority in the Bundestag.

The upper house (Bundesrat) debate on the package on July 10 will be a formality as the chamber representing Germany's states could only block the package with a two-thirds majority -- not likely in a house where Merkel is only marginally outnumbered.

SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel, ridiculing Merkel's U-turn, told her in the Bundestag: "Today is nothing less than your Waterloo and your nuclear exit law is our nuclear exit law."

He said Merkel returned to power for a second term in 2009 with her Free Democrat (FDP) junior coalition partners "with only two projects in mind -- extending the lifespan of nuclear plants, and cutting taxes. You have achieved neither."

Renate Kuenast, parliamentary leader of the Greens, told Merkel: "I don't care if you have done it for electoral reasons or out of conviction. The historic irony is enough for me.

"I want to thank to all those people who, for the last 30 years, have had the courage to protest against nuclear power even when they were treated like criminals and fired on with water cannons," said Kuenast.

Rainer Bruederle, the FDP parliamentary leader and former economy minister, said Germany would have to halve the nine or 10 years now expected to build the 4,000 km of new power lines needed to handle the switch to alternative energy sources.

Germany got almost a fifth of its total power requirements from renewable sources in the quarter of 2011, said the energy association BDEW, estimating that between 8-17 gigawatts of new capacity -- mostly gas and coal-based -- will have to be built over the next decade to counter the volatility of green power and to make up for lost nuclear capacity.

The head of energy agency Dena warned in an interview that failure to connect new power capacity near demand centres or near transport grids or storage facilities would waste assets or put at risk the grids' stability.

(Writing by Stephen Brown; editing by John Stonestreet and Mark Heinrich)

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