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BERLIN (Reuters) - Nuclear energy may appear cheap at first glance, but the potential human costs of atomic power make it unaffordable over the long term, German Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen said in comments released on Friday.
In an article for news weekly Der Spiegel on the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine, Roettgen said Germany's decision to move away from nuclear power generation was a matter of responsible economic policy.
"In the short term, it may look like a cheap source of energy, but if catastrophe strikes, the costs are too high... no economic target is worth endangering people's well-being, today or in future generations."
The Fukushima reactor accident in Japan caused an abrupt U-turn in Germany's nuclear energy plans, with the government now focused on how to abandon nuclear power after it shut down several plants.
Roettgen said that apart from the human cost, the disaster had dealt a serious blow to the Japanese economy, the world's third largest. He predicted this would lead to a broad reassessment of atomic power, with signs of a rethink already emerging in Europe.
"The costs of the Fukushima reactor accident will weigh on Japan's economy for years, if not decades," he said. "These economic costs will lead to a rethinking of nuclear energy."
The center-right Berlin government scrapped an earlier decision to extend the lifespans of German nuclear plants but has yet to decide when it will permanently close them down.
After Chancellor Angela Merkel met regional leaders this month, the premier of one state said Germany's last nuclear plant would close no later than 2022.
Some politicians are calling for an even quicker exit. In Der Spiegel, the head of Merkel's conservative Bavarian sister party, Horst Seehofer, once a fierce opponent of limiting plant lifespans, said all plants could be closed by 2020.
Roettgen said Germans would have to be ready to shoulder new costs as a result.
"There is no golden path to the future that costs nothing and requires effort from no-one," he wrote. "Everyone will have to contribute, both industry and private households."
Der Spiegel said Germany's largest energy concerns had made a first assessment of potential costs if the seven nuclear plants now offline remain closed.
The study showed cost increases would be only moderate for households -- one euro cent per kWh -- but energy-intensive industries would face some 1.5 billion euros ($2.19 billion) in extra costs annually, above all in the chemicals sector.
editing by Paul Taylor