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Germany's trouble with abandoning nuclear power

Now that Germany is turning away from nuclear power, it is more reliant on renewable and traditional energy sources – both of which comes with problems of their own.

By Isabelle de PommereauCorrespondent / July 15, 2011

Pro- nuclear energy advocates from the Nuclear Society group KTG hold a sign reading 'Nuclear Hysteria - No Thank You' during a demonstration outside the Chancellery in Berlin on July 7.

Bob Strong/Reuters

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Hotzenwald, Germany

Before Germany decided to shutter its 17 nuclear power plants by 2022, few had ever heard of Hotzenwald, a nature preserve at the southern tip of the Black Forest, in the prosperous state of Baden-Württemberg. Now, as the government retreats from nuclear energy in favor of renewables, many will watch this bucolic spot as the testing ground for Germany's ambitious green future.

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And there is already trouble in paradise. Local Greens party leaders and residents are fighting a plan to transform a ridge overlooking the Swiss Alps into a hydropower electricity storage facility – a project that would destroy hundreds of acres of natural splendor.

"If you slice the top of a mountain and empty it like a breakfast egg, it's such an assault on the landscape that you jeopardize the very existence of this area," says Greens party parliamentarian Ruth Cremer-Ricken from nearby Bad Säckingen.

But experts say the €1.2 billion ($1.7 billion) storage project is a crucial piece of Germany's energy transformation. "It may be a problem for nature, but we have to decide what we want. If we don't build it, we won't be able to have more renewable," says Frank Musiol of the Baden-Württemberg Center for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research in Stuttgart.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's energy policy has undergone a dramatic about-face. Last fall, her center-right coalition reversed a previous government plan to ditch nuclear power. But Germany's visceral aversion to nuclear power, which has been an intricate part of German identity since the 1970s, gaining steam after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, grew in the wake of Japan's Fukushima nuclear accident. And Ms. Merkel was swayed to wean one of the world's biggest economies off its nuclear supply. The government cemented the move in a late June vote.

But from Bavaria to Lower Saxony, opposition to green energy technology (often from the Greens themselves) looms as a major roadblock.

"We have the historic chance to set an example that this transition is possible, and how it can be done. If we don't succeed, why should anybody else embark on this path?" says energy expert Marcel Viëtor at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. "The harm would be great on a global level. But if Germany proves it can manage this energy turnaround technically, quickly, and in a way that strengthens its economic competitiveness – and we are optimistic about that – this might send a strong motivating signal to other societies."

This spring, Merkel inaugurated Germany's first offshore windmill farm, in the Baltic Sea. The 21-turbine park, set to provide electricity to 50,000 homes, will be a cornerstone of her plan, which aims to double the portion of energy generated by renewables to 35 percent by 2020. Currently, nuclear power generates 25 percent of Germany's energy supply.

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