* Only 10 of Germany’s 17 nuclear plants to stay open
* About a third of German nuclear capacity to be shut down
* Merkel’s conservatives face defeat in regional elections
* Opposition accuses Merkel of transparent trickery
(Adds details of capacity to be shut down, share falls)
By David Stamp
BERLIN, March 15 (Reuters) - Germany will shut down all seven of its nuclear power plants that began operating before 1980 at least till June, the government said on Tuesday, leaving open whether they will ever start up again after Japan’s crisis.
Chancellor Angela Merkel announced the closures, which will leave only 10 nuclear stations still generating, under a nuclear policy moratorium imposed as Japan faced a potential catastrophe at its earthquake-crippled Fukushima complex.
“Power plants that went into operation before the end of 1980 will ... be shut down for the period of the moratorium,” Merkel told a news conference, adding that the decision would be carried out by government decree as no agreement with the plants’ operators had been reached.
Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen said it was not clear if the reactors to be shut down in the three-month moratorium would remain closed or be reconnected to the grid afterwards.
Merkel astonished German politicians on Monday by suspending an unpopular coalition decision taken only last autumn, under which the life of Germany’s 17 nuclear power plants would be extended by years. [ID:nLDE72D1PN]
She drew accusations on Tuesday of transparent trickery for the move, with the opposition and media saying she was trying to avoid a regional election disaster later this month.
The seven ageing plants account for about a third of Germany’s nuclear capacity. However, one of them has been offline since an accident in 2007, and another shut down last month for maintenance. [ID:nLDE72E0OD] [ID:nLDE72E1U0]
Business leaders urged caution when making major decisions on nuclear plants, which in total supply about a quarter of all electricity needed to power Europe’s biggest economy. “Panic and party politics make bad advisers,” said Hans Heinrich Driftmann, who heads the German Chamber of Industry and Trade.
The government said reliable power supplies were assured, but German electricity prices hit their highest level since October 2009 after Merkel’s announcement. [nLDE72E1AA]
Merkel said consequences of the Japanese crisis had to be dealt with at an international level.
“Yesterday I agreed with the French President Nicolas Sarkozy that Germany and France ... would put forward an initiative to put safety of nuclear plants onto the international agenda within the framework of the G20,” she said.
Last year the government had decided to keep the nuclear plants — operated by E.ON (EONGn.DE), RWE (RWEG.DE), EnBW (EBKG.DE) and Vattenfall [VATN.UL] — running for about 12 years beyond their original shutdown date, despite protests even before the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan on Friday.
Shares of E.ON and RWE were down 5 percent and 5.2 percent, after falls of 5.3 and 4.8 percent respectively on Monday due to limited prospects for nuclear power in the EU. [ID:nLDE72E0BM]
Merkel’s policy change drew cynicism from the opposition. “She just wants to get through the provincial assembly elections,” said Social Democrat leader Sigmar Gabriel, accusing her of playing political tactics with people’s fears.
“The whole thing doesn’t make sense and is really just a transparent trick,” he told ARD television.
Merkel faces three regional elections in the next fortnight, including in the southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, which has long been a stronghold of her Christian Democrats (CDU).
Even before the Japanese crisis the CDU faced losing control in Baden-Wuerttemberg, one of Germany’s most economically vibrant states, for the first time in over 60 years.
Last year the party was voted out in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, and in February it suffered an eletoral thrashing in the city of Hamburg.
As a result of the setbacks, Merkel’s coalition with the Free Democrats has already lost its majority in the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, whose make-up is decided by parties’ relative strength in the states.
Defeat in Baden-Wuerttemberg would also deliver a huge psychological blow to Merkel, who is under fire for Germany’s role in bailouts for debt-stricken euro zone states. One of the plants to close suspension is in Baden-Wuerttemberg.
Merkel won early support for the suspension. An ARD poll showed 80 percent support for the decision, with 53 percent backing closure of all German reactors as soon as possible. (Additional reporting by Brian Rohan, Gernot Heller and Thomas Seythal; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)