Leader: For the sake of the planet we cannot follow Germany’s lead

Germany's decision to reject nuclear power will lead to an increase in carbon emissions.

In September 2010, Angela Merkel announced plans to extend the operating lives of Germany's 17 nuclear power stations and hailed a "revolution in energy provision". But, just eight months later, the German chancellor has declared that her country will become a nuclear-free state by 2022. The decision, prompted by the Fukushima disaster in Japan, may appear quixotic in a country not known for its high levels of seismic activity.

But Mrs Merkel's retreat has more to do with politics than policy. The German electorate is overwhelmingly opposed to nuclear energy - 88 per cent would like to see all plants closed down - and Mrs Merkel's pro-nuclear stance contri­buted to the disastrous performance of the Christian Democrats in the five regional elections this year. In addition to Germany, Switzerland has announced that it will decommission all of its nuclear power plants by 2034 and Italy has abandoned plans to re-establish a nuclear energy industry.

In Britain, by comparison, the anti-nuclear backlash has been mild. Following the completion of a post-Fukushima safety review, the government has reaffirmed its support for the technology and is committed to building eight new nuclear power stations by 2025. Yet a recent YouGov poll found that more of the public (48 per cent) now oppose nuclear power than support it (40 per cent). In addition, 55 MPs, including Zac Goldsmith, Caroline Lucas and Charles Kennedy, have signed an early-day motion calling on the government to suspend plans for a new nuclear programme. And, in Scotland, the SNP has vowed to use devolved planning laws to block another generation of power stations. The case for nuclear power must be made anew.

The context in which all energy policy is formed is one in which the planet is warming at a potentially catastrophic speed. The latest figures from the International Energy Agency suggest that the world will fail to prevent a disastrous 2°C rise in global temperatures. At a time when we need to combat climate change by all means necessary, it makes no sense for the UK to abandon nuclear power, a low-carbon energy source that accounts for 20 per cent of all electricity production. Renewable technologies such as solar, wind and wave power should complement rather than replace nuclear energy. Germany's rejection of nuclear power, which at present produces 26 per cent of its electricity, will leave it more dependent on coal, the most carbon-dense of fossil fuels, as well as more reliant on oil-rich autocracies. Deutsche Bank analysts predict that the decision will add an extra 370 million tonnes of carbon-dioxide emissions to the atmosphere by 2020. Should other industrial nations follow Germany's lead, the result will be a vast - and entirely avoidable - increase in global emissions.

Against this, policymakers must weigh up the undoubted shortcomings of nuclear power - the safety risks, the waste and the cost. In a post-Fukushima world, it is unlikely that new plants will be built without some form of public subsidy. However, it would be reckless of ministers to deny a place for nuclear as part of a balanced portfolio of energy sources. The twin imperatives of environmental sustainability and energy security make this no time for Britain to turn its back on nuclear power.

This article first appeared in the 06 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Are we all doomed?