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Germany should speed up nuclear exit, minister says

* Environment minister wants to scrap nuclear extension

* Merkel’s government re-examines nuclear policies

BERLIN, March 28 (Reuters) - Germany should shut its nuclear power plants faster than planned, Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen said on Monday after the ruling Christian Democrats (CDU) suffered an election defeat.

A close ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, Roettgen said the loss of the conservative stronghold Baden-Wuerttemberg on Sunday -- in a vote where Japan’s nuclear disaster played a major role -- showed the public wanted a quicker exit.

“We have to now show that we can get away from nuclear energy faster and that the switch to renewable energy is possible,” Roettgen told journalists before a meeting of CDU party leaders to analyse Sunday’s defeat.

Merkel’s centre-right federal government last year scrapped a 2000 law to shut down nuclear power by 2022 written by the former centre-left government of Social Democrats and Greens -- even though polls showed most were opposed to scrapping it.

Her government passed legislation to extend the lifespan of the 17 nuclear plants by an average of 12 years beyond 2022.

But after the Japanese nuclear disaster, Merkel retreated and declared a three-month moratorium on the extensions.

She also temporarily shut seven nuclear plants built before 1980. That upset her party’s business wing and failed to impress voters in Baden-Wuerttemberg, some of whom saw it as an election ploy. [ID:nLDE72Q0E6]

Roettgen said 80 percent of the public favoured switching off nuclear power, which accounts for about 23 percent of Germany’s energy, and replacing it within a decade or so with renewable sources, which now account for 17 percent of its electricity.

The anti-nuclear Greens party were the shock winners of the election in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Germany’s richest state which was ruled by the CDU for 58 years. Outgoing CDU state premier Stefan Mappus was a leading advocate of nuclear power.

The Greens, once a small fringe party, will now lead the government in one of Germany’s 16 federal states for the first time, in coalition with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).

The leader of the SPD, Sigmar Gabriel, urged Merkel to draft a new law to end nuclear power in Germany by 2020.

Bavaria state premier Horst Seehofer, head of Merkel’s sister party, the Christian Social Union, said he also wanted the conservatives to get away from the nuclear extension.

“This was an election on nuclear power,” Seehofer said. “We’ve got to change direction on energy now, within the next few days,” he said, referring to the extension beyond 2022.

Hermann Groehe, CDU general secretary, told Germany’s ARD TV network he thought it was unlikely that most of those seven shut plants would ever be brought back on line.

“I’ve got my doubts,” Groehe said. “I think it’s highly unlikely that the majority of the reactors will come back on.”

Even nuclear power advocates in the CDU, such as Hesse state premier Volker Bouffier, agreed on Monday that the government would have to re-examine its nuclear plans after the defeat.

“We’re going to first examine the situation and then make decisions,” Bouffier said. “There’s no reason to be hectic. We need to be prudent.” (editing by Elizabeth Piper)