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The agreement reached earlier this month between the German government and major electric-power companies to phase out that country’s commercial nuclear program in about 30 years came as a fresh reminder of the global shift away from nuclear energy production. The “irreversible” landmark agreement is of monumental significance, not only to Germany, the first industrialized nation to “denuclearize” its energy policy, but also to other industrial powers that continue to operate nuclear power plants.

The agreement gives those power companies significant discretion. They are allowed to produce up to about 2.6 trillion kilowatt-hours of nuclear power in the next 32 years. During this period, they will phase out all 19 nuclear reactors now operating. Inefficient reactors will be closed early on, but efficient ones will be able to run for many more years.

The accord resulted from a 1998 campaign pledge made by the left-of-center Social Democratic Party. The coalition government of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, in which the Greens party is a junior partner, has already taken steps to realize that pledge, including legislation that de-emphasizes nuclear power production.

Germany, like Japan, began building nuclear plants in the 1960s and is now the world’s fourth-largest nuclear-power producer after the United States, France and Japan. Its plants have maintained higher safety standards and higher rates of capacity utilization than those in Japan. In both nations, the share of nuclear power in total electricity output is about the same — 31 percent for Germany and 36 percent for Japan.

Germany’s nuclear program was hit hard by the 1986 nuclear accident in Chernobyl, which contaminated parts of the country, touching off a wave of popular protest. In the 1990s, Germany abandoned its policy of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel and canceled its fast-breeder reactor project. No plant has been built since 1989.

Under the phase-out agreement, all nuclear plants in Germany will go out of operation by the early 2030s. Germany is already utilizing wind-power generation. It is also using a cogeneration system that produces electricity and heat at the same time. But the big question — how to develop an alternative to nuclear energy — has yet to be answered. Compared with Japan, Germany has an advantage: It can buy low-cost electricity from neighboring countries.

Under the “Kyoto protocol,” Germany is committed to reducing its greenhouse-gas emissions 21 percent from the 1990 level by around 2010. The decision to abandon nuclear power generation makes it even more difficult to achieve that target. Still, Germany’s willingness to cut CO2 output without having recourse to nuclear power is praiseworthy.

The Japanese government, which traditionally gives top priority to securing stable energy supplies, has given special consideration to nuclear energy because of its relatively low fuel cost. However, public confidence in that policy has been shaken by a series of serious nuclear accidents in recent years. Yet Japan sticks to its nuclear energy policy. In fact, Japan is the only industrialized country that continues to build new nuclear power plants in the face of mounting public criticism. The government is pushing a project to build a new reprocessing plant at a cost of over 2 trillion yen.

While the government emphasizes the relatively low unit cost of nuclear power, further liberalization of the electric-power industry is expected to change the cost equation of nuclear energy. If the cost of nuclear-waste disposal is included, the unit price of nuclear electricity could exceed that of thermal electricity. Power-industry liberalization, and not just safety concerns, is responsible for the halt to nuclear-plant construction in the U.S. and Europe.

Ecology, of course, is also an essential factor in the energy equation. Further efforts must be made, not only to conserve energy, but to encourage the wider use of new energy forms, such as biomass, solar energy and wind power. Putting an immediate end to nuclear energy production may be difficult, to say the least. But this does not obviate the need for Japan to reconsider its traditional policy of expanding nuclear-power output through the reprocessing of spent fuel.

Indeed, it is time to rethink our nuclear energy program, which has continued for more than three decades without much of a hard-hitting policy review. What is needed now is a better vision of energy supply: one based on a comprehensive and cool-headed analysis of all the relevant factors, including new energy sources and technologies, environmental problems and power-industry liberalization.

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