BERLIN — Calling Germany’s plan to phase out nuclear energy by 2022 a “Herculean task,” Chancellor Angela Merkel told lawmakers on Thursday that the country was poised to lead the world in renouncing nuclear energy.
“We can become the first industrial country to abandon nuclear energy,” Mrs. Merkel said in a speech as she appealed to lawmakers to back the bills that would help pay for the transition. “It is a Herculean task. We all can work together on this project to combine future ethical responsibilities with economic success.”
As other leading industrial countries wonder whether Germany, as Europe’s largest economy and one of the world’s leading export nations, can achieve this, Mrs. Merkel insisted that the goal was reachable if certain steps were taken.
“We can reach this goal only if we fundamentally upgrade our energy system,” she said in Parliament. “Abandoning nuclear power will not be easy without creating conditions for future energy supply.”
Nuclear energy produces 22.6 percent of Germany’s electricity, with coal providing over 42 percent, natural gas 13.6 percent and renewable energy 17.0 percent, according to the Energy Ministry.
Just eight months ago, Mrs. Merkel stunned the opposition, environmental groups and anti-nuclear lobbies by pushing through measures to prolong the country’s use of nuclear power to 2033.
That decision — reversing a law passed by a previous government, which had planned to end nuclear power by 2021 — weakened support for her center-right coalition. But it increased the appeal of the opposition Greens. As a result, Mrs. Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats were roundly defeated in a major regional election in March.
But then later in March, after the disaster at the Japanese nuclear power plant at Fukushima, Mrs. Merkel reversed herself and reset the phase out date for 2022.
In her speech, which was punctuated by both applause and jeers, she sought the explain her turnabout.
“For me personally, after the accident in Japan, there followed a reassessment of the risks associated with nuclear energy,” she said. “Fukushima changed my attitude toward nuclear energy. Radioactive steam still rises into the atmosphere, and an end to this horror is nowhere in sight. We must draw appropriate lessons from this situation.”
Mrs. Merkel, who was trained as a physicist, said the government would move quickly to adopt a battery of laws enabling the transition to alternative energy sources, including wind and solar power, but also new measures to save energy.
Eight bills and regulations have already been drafted after three months of inspections of Germany’s 17 nuclear power plants by two expert committees appointed by the government. Eight of the nuclear plants have already been decommissioned.
The government will also speed the construction of fossil fuel power plants, the chancellor said.
“If we are getting out of nuclear quicker and into renewable energy, then we need fossil power plants for the transition,” Mrs. Merkel said.
She added that the transition would also require substantial investment in the electricity grid and more flexible planning regulations to increase ways to increase energy efficiency.
The opposition Social Democrats and Greens, who when they were in power from 1998 to 2005 had decided to abandon nuclear power, mocked Mrs. Merkel, suggesting that she was cynical and insincere.
“It’s unbelievable that she’s presenting herself as the inventor of the German energy change revolution — it just knocks your socks off,” Frank-Walter Steinmeier, parliamentary leader of the Social Democrats, said in a speech to Parliament after Mrs. Merkel had spoken.
Mr. Steinmeier reminded lawmakers that Mrs. Merkel had once called the shutdown of technically safe nuclear reactors “absurd.”
The parliamentary caucus of the Social Democrats took out an advertisement in several newspapers on Thursday to congratulate Mrs. Merkel on her change of heart. “Not enough, not soon enough,” it said.
The Greens also criticized Mrs. Merkel for her change of heart.
“Welcome, Madam, to the 21st century,” the Greens’ chairman, Jürgen Trittin, told lawmakers.
The government’s goal of having 35 percent renewable energy by 2020, Mr. Trittin said, is insufficient.
The New York Times