Nuclear Phaseout Will 'Pay Off' for German Energy Research, Says Panel Chair

Germany's plans to shut down the last of its 17 nuclear power plants by 2022 is a huge chance for the country's researchers, Matthias Kleiner, head of the German Research Foundation, the country's largest funding agency, said in an interview with ScienceInsider. Kleiner was one of the co-chairs of the country's Ethics Commission on Safe Energy Supply, which recommended the phaseout. The energy transition that Germany plans "will be an arduous process, but I believe that it will truly pay off," Kleiner says.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and members of her cabinet announced the phaseout plans yesterday. Germany is the largest country to announce that it will forgo generating nuclear power in the aftermath of the disaster at the Fukushima plant in Japan.

The phaseout plan is an about-face for Merkel's government, but it looks familiar to many Germans—a majority of whom say they are against nuclear power. Until last fall, Germany had a law in place that mandated the country's reactors be shut down after 32 years in operation. That meant that the last reactor was slated to come off line in 2023. In October, however, the government passed a new law allowing reactors to stay in operation up to a decade longer.

The plan that was announced yesterday doesn't mandate a shut-by date for specific reactors, but says that the country's seven oldest reactors, taken off-line after Fukushima, should stay shut down, along with an eighth that was already shut because of safety issues. Six more should be shut down by 2021. Depending on how the transition plays out, the final three will come off-line in 2021 or 2022.

The plan is in line with the final recommendations of the Ethics Commission on Safe Energy Supply that Merkel created in March. The 17-member commission, chaired by Kleiner and Klaus Toepfer, former head of the United Nations Environment Programme, gave Merkel their report (in German here) yesterday. It calls for keeping the eight reactors off-line and says that a complete phaseout is achievable "within a decade."

Part of the larger "energy concept" that Merkel's government announced yesterday is the promise of an expanded energy research program, to be unveiled later this year, that will set priorities for research through 2020. No funding level has been announced yet. Areas slated to get additional funding include renewable energy sources, energy efficiency, storage technologies, the "smart grid," and integration of renewables into the existing system.

German researchers, from sociologists and political scientists to engineers, will play a key role in managing the transition to an economy based on renewable energy, Kleiner says. One of the challenges for policy-makers will be to strike the right balance between funding for basic research and for more output-oriented programs, he says. And Germany's nuclear engineers and nuclear researchers need not fear for their jobs, he says. They will be needed during the decades-long process of decommissioning the country's plants and in the continued search for long-term waste storage.

The phaseout is compatible with Germany's goals of reducing CO2 emissions, according to the ethics commission. Merkel made similar claims in her press conference. Greater efficiency at both a personal and an industrial level "has great potential," Kleiner says. "Energy that isn't used is the most environmentally friendly of all … if the transition to non-nuclear sources provides additional incentives to conserve energy that will be a wonderful side effect," he says.

Before Fukushima, nuclear power provided about a quarter of Germany's electricity. With the seven reactors off-line, Kleiner says, Germany already gets more energy from renewable sources than from nuclear plants.