BERLIN - Europe's economic powerhouse, Germany, announced plans Monday to abandon nuclear energy over the next 11 years, outlining an ambitious strategy in the wake of Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster to replace atomic power with renewable-energy sources.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said she hoped the transformation to more solar, wind, and hydroelectric power would serve as a road map for other countries.
"We believe that we can show those countries who decide to abandon nuclear power - or not to start using it - how it is possible to achieve growth, creating jobs and economic prosperity while shifting the energy supply toward renewable energies," Merkel said.
Her government said it would shut down all 17 nuclear power plants in Germany, the world's fourth-largest economy, by 2022. It had no immediate estimate of the transition's overall cost.
The plan - which requires parliamentary approval - sets Germany apart from most other major industrialized nations. Among other Group of Eight nations, only Italy has abandoned nuclear power, which was voted down in a referendum after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
The decision marks a remarkable about-face for Merkel's center-right government, which only last year decided to extend the life span of Germany's nuclear reactors, with the last scheduled to go offline about 2036. But Merkel, who holds a doctorate in physics, said that industrialized, technologically advanced Japan's "helplessness" in the face of the Fukushima disaster made her rethink the technology's risks.
Phasing out nuclear power so swiftly will be a challenge, but it is feasible and ultimately will give Germany a competitive advantage in the renewable-energy era, Merkel said.
"As the first big industrialized nation, we can achieve such a transformation toward efficient and renewable energies, with all the opportunities that brings for exports, developing new technologies and jobs," Merkel said.
Germany's seven oldest reactors, already taken off the grid pending safety inspections after the March catastrophe at Japan's nuclear plant, will stay offline permanently, Merkel said. The plants accounted for about 40 percent of Germany's nuclear power capacity.
At the time of Japan's disaster, which followed a 9.0-magnitude quake and tsunami, Germany drew just under a quarter of its electricity from nuclear power - about the same share as in the United States.
Although Germany already was set to abandon nuclear energy eventually, the decision dramatically speeds up that process. Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen said there were no provisions that would allow a later policy reverse.
"We don't only want to renounce nuclear energy by 2022, we also want to reduce our CO2 emissions by 40 percent and double our share of renewable energies, from about 17 percent today to then 35 percent," he said.
Merkel said the cornerstones of Germany's energy policy would also include a safe and steady power supply that doesn't rely on imports, and affordable prices for industry and consumers. The plan calls for more investment in natural gas plants as a backup to prevent blackouts, the chancellor said.
Germany's initiative received a skeptical reception abroad. French Prime Minister Francois Fillon, whose country relies on nuclear power to produce 80 percent of its electricity supply, insisted "there's no way" for the European Union to meet its emission-cutting targets without at least some nuclear power.
"We respect this decision, but it doesn't cause us to change our policy," Fillon said. France operates more than one-third of the nuclear reactors in the EU.
Sweden's Environment Minister Andreas Carlgren also criticized the German decision, saying the focus on an end date was unfortunate and could drive up electricity prices across Europe.