Germany has decided to shut all its nuclear reactors by 2022 in a drastic policy reversal in the wake of the nuclear disaster at Japan's Fukushima plant.
The move announced on Monday will make Germany the first major industralised power to shut down all its nuclear plants. However, the decision also means the country will have to find the 22 per cent of its electricity needs covered by nuclear reactors from another source.
Coalition partners in Chancellor Angela Merkel's government want to keep the eight oldest of Germany's 17 nuclear reactors permanently shut.
Seven were closed temporarily in March, just after the earthquake and tsunami hit Fukushima. The eighth, the Kruemmel plant in northern Germany, has been mothballed for years because of technical problems.
A further six will be taken offline by 2021, Norbert Roettgen, the environment minister, said early on Monday after late-night talks in the chancellor's office between leaders of the centre-right coalition.
The remaining three reactors, Germany's newest, will stay open for another year until 2022 as a safety buffer to ensure no disruption to power supply, he said.
Paul Brennan, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Berlin, the German capital, said to get rid of the reactors within that "short space of time really is a tall order indeed".
"It is hugely ambitious because it's not just the closure of the nuclear power stations that we're talking about here.
"The other targets that the German government is aimng for are what really make it tough. For example they're insisitng that they will reduce electricity consumption by 10 per cent by 2020.
"They're also insisting that they want to reduce greenhouse emissions by 40 per cent in the same time period, and they want to double the amount of renewable energy by 35 per cent."
Merkel backtracked in March on an unpopular decision just months earlier to extend the life of ageing nuclear stations in Germany, where the majority of voters oppose atomic energy.
|Thermal imagery shows the shut down nuclear power plant in Biblis, Germany [Reuters]|
Her Christian Democrats (CDU), their Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) and junior coalition partner the Free Democrats (FDP) met on Sunday after an ethics commission ended its deliberations this weekend.
"It's definite: the latest end for the last three nuclear power plants is 2022," Roettgen said after the meeting. "There will be no clause for revision."
Some politicians had wanted a clause allowing for the agreement to be revised in future. The FDP had wanted no firm date but rather a flexible window for the exit, plus the option of bringing back at least one of the seven oldest nuclear reactors in case of emergency.
The coalition agreed to keep one of the older reactors as a "cold reserve" for 2013, if the transition to renewable energies cannot meet winter demand and if fossil fuels do not suffice to make up for a potential shortfall.
A massive earthquake and tsunami in March crippled Japan's Fukushima plant, causing releases of radioactivity, sparking calls for tougher global safety measures and prompting some governments to reconsider their nuclear energy strategy.
The German decision still needs to go through parliament and leaders of the opposition Social Democrats and the Greens were present at parts of the meeting to enable a broad consensus.
The decision could still face opposition from RWE, E.ON, Vattenfall and EnBW, the utility companies that run the 17 plants, mostly because of plans to keep a disputed nuclear fuel rod tax.
The coalition wants to retain the tax, which was expected to raise $3.29bn a year from this year, but so far has not been levied. With the immediate exit of eight plants, however, it will raise less than envisaged.
Sources had said the government was mulling scrapping the tax in return for the four big power providers supporting an earlier exit from nuclear energy and not suing the government for its policy U-turn.
Juergen Grossmann, chief executive of the biggest power provider, RWE, has lobbied for nuclear plants to stay open longer, arguing a quick exit would cost energy-intensive industry dearly and could threaten Germany's industrial base.
Before Merkel shut down the oldest plants for three months, nearly a quarter of the country's power was atomic. Her about-turn has done little to regain her support, but has drawn scorn from the opposition and from within her own party ranks.
Tens of thousands of people demonstrated against nuclear energy at the weekend all across Germany.
Nuclear policy is heavily disputed in Germany and the issue has helped boost the Greens, which captured control of one of the CDU's stronghold states, Baden-Wuerttemberg, in a March election.
Merkel's majority in the Bundesrat upper house vanished last year after the CDU failed to hold onto North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state.
Losing Baden-Wuerttemberg, a vote held after Fukushima and fought in part over energy issues, dealt another blow to Merkel's authority.