BERLIN, March 15 (UPI) -- Germany will shut down its seven oldest nuclear power reactors and may not restart them, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Tuesday.
The plants will be closed for at least three months under a moratorium imposed in response to the Japanese nuclear crisis, she said.
"Power plants that went into operation before the end of 1980 will be shut down for the period of the moratorium," Merkel said.
The moratorium shelves a decision to extend the lifetime of Germany's 17 reactors by an average of 12 years. Nuclear power supplies nearly one-fifth of Germany's electricity and it's an integral part of the European energy mix.
Merkel said EU ministers will discuss nuclear power at a two-day summit next week.
European Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger said Tuesday that the European Union should evaluate whether it can secure its energy supply without nuclear power in the future. That debate, he added, should be led among all member states and with the United States and China, he told Germany's ARD television.
In Germany, the closures will affect the reactors Neckarwestheim I, Biblis A and B, Isar I, Brunsbuettel, Philippsburg I and Unterweser. Another reactor, Kruemmel, built during the 1970s, was taken off the grid in July 2009 after a series of incidents. That means only nine of Germany's 17 reactors will be producing power over the next three months.
Germany's four main utilities -- Eon, RWE, EnBW and Vattenfall Europe -- have seen their shares drop as a consequence of the decision.
RWE said Tuesday it was right to evaluate how safety could be improved. The company added, however, that it "sees no necessity to call the lifetime extension into general question."
But that's exactly what might happen. Merkel said all 17 reactors will be checked for safety before a decision on their medium-term future is made.
She vowed that there would be "no taboos" when thinking about shutting down reactors. "Safety stands above everything," she said.
Her decision will require an update of Germany's energy strategy, drafted last year at a time when Merkel and the nuclear power industry had agreed to a set of taxes in return for extending the lifetime of the country's nuclear reactors by an average of 12 years.
The conservatives had lobbied long for nuclear power as a bridge into the renewable energy age but their decision last fall drew the ire of ordinary Germans, more than half of whom, polls indicate, were against a nuclear revival even before the Japanese earthquake.
The opposition has accused Merkel of trying to fish for voter support with her latest decision ahead of several key regional elections in the coming weeks.
"The whole thing doesn't make sense and is really just a transparent trick," Sigmar Gabriel, the leader of the opposition Social Democrats, told German public broadcaster ARD.
Marcel Vietor, an energy expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, a Berlin think tank, said the decision to shut down seven reactors comes across as hastily taken ahead of the elections.
"It's a tactical decision out of political necessity that means a radical break from past policies but it's not a well-thought-through strategy," Vietor told United Press International in a telephone interview Tuesday.
He said the governments, when reacting to the Japanese nuclear crisis, have been trying to answer the wrong question -- "Can nuclear power be made safe and how so?"
"You simply can't give a serious answer to that question. The likelihood of such an accident is extremely low but there's simply no guarantee," he told UPI. "Yes, you can boost safety systems but you'll never be able to rule out another fallout."
Rather, Vietor said, politicians should start asking the inevitable question when weighing the risks of nuclear power.
"Are governments willing to accept the consequences of such a disaster?"