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Germany to phase out nuclear power. Could the US do the same?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has endorsed a plan to end all nuclear power in Germany by 2022. Increasingly, studies suggest this is not a far-fetched idea, even for the US.

By Staff writer / June 7, 2011

President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel take part in a joint news conference in the East Room at the White House in Washington, on Tuesday, June 7.

Charles Dharapak/AP

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In their White House press conference Tuesday, President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel stood together on topics ranging from the global economy to Libya.

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Yet last week, Chancellor Merkel parted ways with the US on what had been a shared vision of how to maintain thriving economies while reducing greenhouse gases. For both nations, part of that plan had been nuclear power. For Germany, it is no longer.

In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, Merkel announced that her country would close all of its 17 existing reactors by 2022. Other nations, including Japan, Italy, and Switzerland, have announced plans to pare back nuclear power, but none have gone as far as Germany, the world’s fourth-largest economy. Merkel vows to replace nuclear power with alternatives that do not increase greenhouse gases or shackle the economic growth.

Could the US do the same? An increasing number of reports suggest it is not beyond the realm of possibility, and Germany could provide a road map. "Germany is conducting what I call a grand laboratory experiment," says Mark Hibbs senior associate in the nuclear policy program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"Over next 10 years, the Germans will be challenged to make use of all of those [alternative] energy technologies to do what they need to do,” he adds. “If they succeed, its very likely we will see other countries give their nuclear programs a complete rethink."

America gets about 20 percent of its power from nuclear – similar to Germany’s 22.6 percent. Likewise, nuclear-energy advocates in America and Germany have cast doubts on renewable energy’s ability to meet the “baseload” power traditionally provided by coal and nuclear plants without harming the economy.

"There are plenty of studies showing that nuclear is key in providing baseload power,” says Mitch Singer, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group in Washington. Noting that changes in wind and clouds can affect renewable-power generation, he adds: “Wind and solar are so variable they really present a problem when you put that much on the grid."

Yet an increasing number of studies also suggest that the US could at least begin to follow in Germany’s footsteps.

• A 2010 analysis by the Electric Power Research Institute found that carbon emissions reduction targets by US power plants could be met primarily with efficiency and renewable energy in the near term. In the long run, new nuclear and advanced coal-fired plants would not make a significant impact on curbing greenhouse gases, until after 2025-2030 it found.

• A 2009 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists found the US could meet electricity demand and cut power plant carbon-dioxide emissions by 84 percent over two decades by boosting energy efficiency, wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass energy. Plans to build four new nuclear plants and 32 new coal plants "could easily be replaced by new natural gas plants or additional efficiency and renewable energy, at a lower cost," the study noted.

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