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Germany can do without nuclear power - Guest contribution by Foreign Minister Westerwelle in the Wall Street Journal

22.09.2011 - Interview

Published in the Wall Street Journal on 22 September 2011

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Civilian nuclear power has been the subject of highly charged debate in German politics and society for many years. The tragedy in Fukushima triggered a further profound reassessment in Germany of the risks of nuclear power. Ultimately, Fukushima accelerated our change of direction. Five months after the accident, Germany decided by law that nuclear energy will be phased out by 2022.

The broad, democratic consensus we have reached in Germany, founded on wide-ranging deliberations with engineers, planners and economists, is that this change of track on energy policy is possible – technically, conceptually and economically. Our intention now is to map out our long-term progress along that road, heading for energy provision that is clean, affordable, and safe.

This decision represents a huge step forward on Germany’s road towards sustainable energy provision sourced largely from renewables. Our climate targets will remain unaffected. We still aim to contribute to the EU-wide target of lowering CO2 emissions by at least 20% by 2020, as well as to achieve our national target of a 40% reduction. We will act responsibly in our work, seeking to ensure security of supply, affordability, and respect for the climate and the environment.

At the same time, substantial technological and economic opportunities will materialize. The renewable energy business promises growth, jobs and returns that other industries can only dream of. On the other hand, our decision requires enormous investment and poses a variety of challenges, both economic and technological.

Before Fukushima, Germany’s 17 nuclear reactors’ share of overall electricity production was just over 20%, which is comparable to the figure in the United States. Our eight oldest reactors were taken off the grid in March 2011, and the remaining nine cover 15% of demand. With eight reactors now offline, our guaranteed capacity is still more than our highest ever domestic consumption.

Meanwhile, the share of renewables in our electricity production passed the 20% mark for the first time in the first half of 2011. New capacities, better system management and improved efficiency will offset the loss in capacity caused by the gradual shut-down of our remaining reactors. Low-carbon fossil fuel power plants will bridge the gap until new capacities have been completed. But in the medium term, our dependency on external energy sources will decrease significantly. By 2020 we plan to produce 35% of Germany’s electricity from renewable, i.e. local, sources, and 50% by 2030.

At the same time, Germany´s energy future is clearly European. While each country must decide its own energy mix, the EU’s efforts and the member states’ domestic energy policies need to complement each other. National grids need to be connected into a high-performance European super-grid. The potential for greater energy efficiency, better integration and more diversification of the European energy sector is huge, and hugely expandable. In energy policy as elsewhere, we need more Europe, not less.

Also, solutions which yesterday seemed utopian or unaffordable are today technically and economically viable, or tangibly close to realization. We are helping to implement the Desertec concept in North Africa, which enables clean electricity from solar, wind and photovoltaic power to be generated on a large scale in desert regions and delivered in part to Europe. Emerging and developing countries on all continents can benefit from these technologies to make their growth more sustainable.

This week, the civilian use of nuclear energy has once again come into focus. In Vienna, the IAEA´s General Conference has endorsed its Action Plan on Nuclear Safety, which aims at strengthening nuclear safety, emergency preparedness and radiation protection of people and the environment worldwide. In New York, world leaders and states´ representatives will convene today, following an invitation by the United Nations secretary-general to a high-level meeting on nuclear safety and security. Both events are part of the process of learning and acting upon the incident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in Japan and its aftermath.

In essence, Germany´s position on nuclear safety is quite clear: We believe that while each country has the right to use nuclear energy, there is a shared responsibility in nuclear safety issues. The effects of nuclear accidents do not stop at national borders. We must make it our common goal in the IAEA and other international bodies to ensure the greatest possible safety by establishing the highest possible standards and enforcing their implementation. Germany will remain a committed and active partner in this.

As the number of nuclear installations worldwide rises, the responsibility for oversight and the application of the highest standards of nuclear safety are matters that, in Germany's view, transcend the exclusive interest of individual states. No country can guarantee that the effects of a nuclear accident will be contained within its own territory. We believe that in future peer reviews, broader collaborative efforts and more transparency will become inevitable. If ever there was a common security issue, this is it.

Germany welcomes the IAEA Action Plan as an important step in the right direction, but we believe that international efforts should aim higher. Together with our partners we will continue to work on this. It is a good thing to have standardized stress tests in the European Union even today that provide reliable and comparable assessments of nuclear power plant safety within the EU. We have invited neighboring countries to participate in this exercise and would welcome similar stress tests worldwide.

With the transformation of its energy sector, opting out of nuclear power, Germany is pursuing a path which it has been travelling - in terms of technology and planning - for quite some time. That policy chimes with our commitment to combat climate change. We trust that our engineers and planners, with decades of experience in new and renewable energies, will rise to the challenge. This will open the door to a safe, efficient, sustainable, ecologically and economically sound energy policy for the 21st century.

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