Germany is also moving to shut down nuclear plants and transition to greater reliance on renewable energy. In 2010, Chancellor Angela Merkel pushed legislation through the parliament extending the operating lives of Germany’s 17 nuclear plants—then slated to be shut down by 2022—by an average of 12 years. But Merkel quickly reversed course after Fukushima, ordering the immediate shutdown of Germany’s seven oldest plants. Her government is now working to pass legislation that would shutter those plants permanently and reinstate phase-out plans for the rest. “Merkel wants this issue out of the political limelight before the summer recess,” says Andreas Kraemer, director of the Berlin and Washington-based Ecologic Institute, an environmental think tank.
The German government has already identified renewable energy as the future, setting plans to boost renewable generation to 50 percent of electrical consumption by 2030 (from 17 percent last year) and to 80 percent by 2050. But which form of renewables will win is still in question.
Under last summer’s legislation, a new nuclear-power tax was expected to subsidize large offshore wind farms. But with last summer’s nuclear extension on the rocks, Merkel’s legislation could now shift support to more distributed forms of renewable energy, says Kraemer. This includes onshore wind turbines and power generation from biogas (methane produced from manure, food wastes, and biomass).
Germany’s accelerated nuclear phase-out may also threaten plans in Eastern Europe by undermining support for subsidies. As Kraemer notes, German taxpayers contribute a third of European development funds, and may balk at contributing to new reactors on their borders.
The deepening nuclear debate over nuclear energy in France, meanwhile, may have global implications. France generates 80 percent of its electricity with nuclear, and its state-owned firms are world leaders: Paris-based EDF is the largest operator of nuclear power plants worldwide, while Areva is the largest provider of nuclear services and technology.
Even France’s allegiance to nuclear appears to be loosening, however. Late last month, Paris-based oil and gas multinational Total announced that it would invest $1.38 billion in solar power by purchasing 60 percent of U.S.-based solar-panel producer SunPower.
EDF says it is moving forward with plans to build a reactor in Normandy. But even EDF is hedging its bets, observes Emmanuel Guérin, a climate and energy expert at Sciences Po, France’s elite university of political science and economics. As Total was buying SunPower last month, EDF was securing the remaining shares that it didn’t own in subsidiary EDF Renewable Energies. “It’s clearly an indication that EDF doesn’t want to be outside the bet on renewable energies,” says Guérin.
At the same time, France’s Socialist Party, previously staunchly pronuclear, is debating its position. Several candidates vying to take on Nicolas Sarkozy in the presidential election next year have called for France to begin shifting from nuclear to renewable energy.
China and the U.S. are also showing signs of strain over the issue. China’s government has temporarily suspended approval of new reactors, and is talking about shifting the balance between its nuclear and renewable energy plans. Chinese officials have said that they may double their goal for solar power from five gigawatts to 10 gigawatts by 2015.
In the U.S., nuclear investment plans are wavering. Last month, NRG Energy wrote off its $481 million investment in a two-reactor project in Texas, blaming potential delays in nuclear approvals and competition from power generators fueled by cheap natural gas. This month, an Areva subsidiary halted construction of a facility in Newport News, Virginia, that was to forge large components for nuclear reactors, while North Carolina legislators rejected a bill to streamline the financing of new reactors. In a conference call with financial analysts earlier this month, the CEO of Duke Energy, a utility proposing to build new reactors in the state, blamed the nuclear crisis in Japan for the political defeat.