Editorial: Germany’s general election and scrapping nuclear power

How can it be balanced with growth?

The Christian Democratic Union, the conservative ruling party led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, scored a victory in Germany’s general election, and the nation’s policy of scrapping nuclear power seems likely to remain unchanged. Merkel is now assured of a third term as chancellor.

Germany’s energy policy shifted following the accident at Japan’s Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant. Under current policy, the nation plans to shut down all 17 of its nuclear reactors by 2022.

In this general election, both the ruling and opposition parties called for the shutdown of Germany’s nuclear power plants as planned. This is evidence of the determination of the German people to break with nuclear power. But it is not yet clear how this policy can be balanced with economic growth.

There was already momentum for abandoning nuclear power in Germany, in large part because of fallout from the explosion at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union 27 years ago.

In 2002 the coalition government led by the Social Democrats passed the Act on the Structured Phase-out of Nuclear Power for the Commercial Production of Electricity. Under the provisions of this law, nuclear power plants now in operation were to be shut down when they had generated the amount of power stipulated by the law, with all of them being shut down by 2022.

It was Chancellor Merkel who pushed back the schedule. When seeking her second term in the general election four years ago, at the behest of industry she called for extending the length of time nuclear power plants could operate and won support for this proposal.

But the Fukushima disaster completely changed her stance, apparently because she could not withstand growing public sentiment against nuclear power.

In a public opinion survey conducted in August of this year, more than 80 percent of respondents said they supported abandoning nuclear power. And in a debate prior to the election, with the problem of the contaminated water at Fukushima in mind, Merkel said scrapping nuclear power was not a hasty decision but rather the correct one.

Setting aside the general and examining the particular, there is an undeniable disparity between the assertions of the ruling and opposition parties.

One issue in the general election was measures to hold down electric rates.

In order to substitute renewable energy sources for nuclear power, since 2000 Germany has required electric companies to purchase renewable energy at a fixed price. Although renewable energy represents only 20 percent of all power sources in Germany, its high cost has been passed on to customers, and electric rates are 1.8 times what they were. The average family’s monthly electric bill is now the equivalent of 11,000 yen.

If the ratio of renewable energy continues to rise, electric rates can be expected to climb further. The ruling party has called for an overhaul of the system to substantially lower the purchase price.

Meanwhile some opposition parties have called for increasing the burden on businesses that have received special treatment. The reason German companies have not demonstrated much opposition to scrapping nuclear power is because there are reductions and exemptions on electric rates intended to maintain international competitiveness.

Carbon dioxide is another issue. The Merkel administration has built additional coal-fired thermal power plants as an energy source to replace nuclear power. So, while other European nations are cutting their carbon dioxide emissions, Germany’s are increasing.

In light of this situation, some opposition parties are calling for Germany to abandon the use of coal. But it is difficult to rapidly expand the use of renewable energy sources, which will lead directly to higher electric rates, and abandoning the use of coal is not a simple matter.

While facing these challenges, Germany is moving ahead with its plan to scrap nuclear power, and its economy is healthy. Of course, the European continent offers the undeniable advantage of being able to purchase power from neighboring nations.

Nevertheless Japan, which relies on renewable energy sources for only 1 to 2 percent of its power, can learn a lot from Germany. When considering future energy policy, Japan must carefully examine the path that Germany has taken.

(Originally published on September 24, 2013)