Germany closes seven of its oldest reactors

The Japanese emergency prompted the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to order the immediate closure of seven of the country's 17 atomic power plants yesterday as public opposition to her nuclear energy policies started to threaten her coalition.

Ms Merkel's conservative-liberal coalition had planned to extend the life of the seven oldest reactors by 12 years to allow green technologies enough time to replace them. Yesterday, however, she announced that the events in Japan meant the reactors, which went online before 1980, would be shut immediately, and that the closures would last at least until the end of a three-month moratorium on the entire nuclear programme.

"The developments in Japan mark a turning point in the history of the mechanised world," Ms Merkel said, adding that Japan's reactors were clearly inadequately equipped to withstand natural disasters. "Safety comes first in all our considerations," she insisted.

German reactors will now be subjected to a thorough safety review. "We want to use the time of the moratorium to accelerate conversion to renewable energy sources," Ms Merkel said. "We will also look again at how we can provide more support for renewable energy."

Her decision followed demonstrations by some 110,000 anti-nuclear activists across Germany on Monday and a similar 60,000-strong demonstration in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg at the weekend. Latest opinion polls suggest that 80 per cent of Germans are now opposed to Ms Merkel's plans to extend the life of nuclear power plants.

The issue is crucial in Baden-Württemberg, where her party faces a key regional election on 27 March. The state has five nuclear power plants, and her Christian Democrats have held power for 58 years. But they are now in acute danger of losing to a coalition of anti-nuclear Greens and Social Democrats.

Ms Merkel's government was far from the only one to be spooked by the crisis in Japan. Neighbouring Switzerland has suspended its plan to build and replace nuclear plants, while Austria's Environment Minister has called for atomic stress tests to make sure that Europe's nuclear facilities were "earthquake-proof". And before an emergency conference on reactor safety today, the European Union scheduled a continent-wide check on measures being taken.

The Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, reassured Iranians that the Bushehr nuclear plant was constructed to more modern standards than those applied when the Fukushima plant was built.