The decision of the German government to phase out nuclear power within 10 years offers a startling illustration of the capacity for an event on one side of the world to have almost instant repercussions on the other. It will be a long time before the full cost of the disaster at Japan's Fukushima plant is known, but the wider political implications are already clear. Chancellor Angela Merkel has now retreated to the policy of the pre-2005 centre-left coalition, which was pledged to shut all Germany's nuclear power stations by 2021.
Germany's geography could not be more different from Japan's, with its situation in a seismic zone and the proximity of the ocean, but Ms Merkel now seems to have judged that her centre-right coalition could not afford to pursue its existing nuclear power policy and still have a sporting chance of re-election in two years' time. In recent months, her Christian Democratic Union has lost a string of state and regional elections. There were reasons other than nuclear power, including the bailout for Greece, but the nuclear issue loomed large, exemplified by Ms Merkel's 2009 election pledge to restart Germany's nuclear power programme.
Her party's most dramatic defeat came in Baden-Württemberg, where the Greens topped the poll after a campaign that focused on the future of the four reactors sited in that state. Ms Merkel had tried to limit the damage by announcing – to accusations of cynical electioneering – that all pre-1980 nuclear reactors would be taken out of service. She also set up a review panel on the whole question. But the combination of the Fukushima disaster, the Chernobyl anniversary and the resurgence of Germany's anti-nuclear Greens trumped her intervention.
In solving one problem, however – the political unpopularity of nuclear power – Ms Merkel's government has created another: how to replace the power that will not now come from nuclear reactors, accounting for almost a quarter of the country's needs. Germany has a good record in renewables, with widespread use of solar power in the south. Ms Merkel herself is said to favour wind and wave power. Even so, a large proportion of new development could rely on coal, driving up carbon emissions, even if investments are made in expensive "clean" coal.
Germany is not the first advanced country to have turned against nuclear power in the wake of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Switzerland, which generates about 40 per cent of its energy from nuclear power, announced a similar decision a week before, with a longer lead time. But it is by far the biggest industrialised country to have taken such a step – and the question must be how many others will follow.
France's commitment to nuclear power is likely to remain solid. It generates 75 per cent of its energy this way, and the Greens have never commanded the mainstream support here that they have in Germany. Nor is France anything like as far advanced in developing alternatives. But Germany's policy reversal is bound to resonate, not least in Britain, where nuclear power has hardly had a glorious history.
The Coalition currently supports the development of a new generation of nuclear power stations, on condition that they are not subsidised by the taxpayer. Many Liberal Democrats, though, remain reluctant and could well cite Germany in demanding a re-think. There may indeed be political and economic reasons for revisiting the nuclear power question. But any review should weigh the environmental pros and cons, while recognising how the British situation differs from that of both Japan and Germany. Decisions about Britain's energy provision are too important to be formulated on the run.