When the German energy company E.On quietly removes the Stade nuclear plant from the grid Friday, Germany will take the first step toward a future of rooftop solar panels, wind farms, and natural gas-burning plants.
The closure spells joy for people like Michaela Hustedt, an environmental expert for Germany's Greens, who engineered Germany's ambitious law to phase out nuclear power over the next 20 years. "It's, of course, wonderful, and the first of many [plants that will close]," she says.
But the plan is coming under increasing criticism from energy companies and opposition politicians, who say the prohibitive cost of renewable energy and recent blackouts in the United States prove the country still needs to rely on its nuclear plants.
"Looking at it technically, renewable energy can't cover as our basic source of energy," says Peter Poppe, a spokesman for Vatenfall Europe, one of the four utility companies to agree on the "Nuclear Consensus" in 2000. "The sun, we all know, isn't a regular in Germany, and the wind, as it says in the Bible, the wind blows where it wants to."
Under the 2002 law, Germany's 19 nuclear reactors will close down after the newest of the plants reaches 32 years in production. When the last reactor goes off the grid in 2023, nuclear and coal power, which currently provide the country with 80 percent of its electricity, will have bowed out in favor of so-called "renewable" energy.
That could spell disaster, opponents of the nuclear phaseout warn. Nuclear reactors, which are heavily subsidized by the government, still provide the more stable source of energy, the critics say. They point to other European countries that have sworn off nuclear energy yet continue to rely on their reactors. Sweden, for example, has so far taken only one reactor off the grid and has been hesitating recently on shutting down a second.
With the Kyoto Protocol requiring countries in the future to limit carbon emissions like those from coal-burning plants, German energy experts are concerned that the country won't have a stable source of power to make up for the 40,000 megawatts lost when nuclear and coal plants go off line in the coming two decades.
"You either phase out nuclear energy, or you reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, but you can't do both," says Wolfgang Pfaffenberger, director of the Bremen Energy Insitute.
Germany's four big energy companies - Vatenfall, Energie Baden-Württemberg, E.on and RWE - are hoping the country will delay the deadlines for shutting reactors, says Mr. Pfaffenberger. The chances of this would be boosted if in the 2006 federal elections the opposition Christian Democrats manage to unseat Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's coalition government, which includes the environmentalist Greens as junior partner.
"They [the energy firms] are hoping that day comes, but they don't want to say it because it would decrease the likelihood of it happening," Pfaffenberger says.
Environmentalists say the big four should instead be focusing on developing their renewable energy technology. The gradual transition away from nuclear power will be covered by a temporary combination of coal, wind, and gas power, according to the Environment Ministry.
Eventually, coal will be phased out as new energy sources - like the geothermic plant that opened in northeastern Germany this week - become economicallly viable.
"We just can't switch our energy sources from Friday to Saturday," says Björn Pieprzyk, of the Association for Renewable Energy. "But the direction has to be right."
Germany has so far favored wind over other renewables. The more than 12,000 wind turbines that dot the German countryside in the north and southwest of the country are indirectly subsidized by the government. The indirect financial breaks - 2.7 billion euro ($3.1 billion) in financial breaks in 2002 alone - have helped mid-sized German companies become worldwide leaders in the wind market.
"Wind is already a classic energy source, even if some don't see it, or don't want to see it," says Andreas Düser, whose company Enercon is second in the worldwide market and has production plants in Sweden, Brazil and India.
The Greens have high hopes for additional renewable energy sources, eventually wanting them to increase their current 8 percent share of the German electricity market to 20 percent by 2020.
"We want a broad palette of renewable energies. Micro-turbines, solar technology, and so on," says Ms. Hustedt. "But it is difficult to predict," what will take off economically.
Skeptics say Germany needs to have a better concept of what makes up the rest of the energy puzzle before it embarks on the path of abandoning nuclear power.
If the Greens increase renewable energy to 20 percent, "you still have 80 percent you need to take care of, and no nuclear energy," says Pfaffenberger, co-author of a book on power supply.
"Up until now, people haven't been worried ... and who looks 10 years into the future anyway? But the experts are annoyed that we haven't found an alternative yet."
Plans call for the Stade plant to be torn down starting in 2005, after spent fuel rods are removed and sent to France for reprocessing.
Spent fuel from German power plants is shipped to both France and Britain for reprocessing but returns to Germany for storage - triggering regular protests along the route by antinuclear activists, including several this week.
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.