Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, tried to contain the political damage stemming from her government’s pro-nuclear stance following the disaster in Japan by signalling the closure of some of Germany’s 17 nuclear plants under a fresh policy review.

“I can’t tell you at this point what will change and what will not. But we’re not doing this to keep things the way they are,” she said, declaring a “moratorium” on a law to extend the use of nuclear power during a new three-month probe.

Her coalition of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats last year allowed the nation’s four big utilities to run their nuclear plants an extra 12 years, prolonging a phase-out which would have seen the last plant to close in 2022.

In return, nuclear operators started paying a new nuclear tax, the proceeds of which were earmarked in part to fund investment in renewable energy, which could ultimately replace nuclear power as a vital power source.

Ms Merkel said the tragedy unfolding in Japan had forced governments “all over the world” to re-assess their nuclear policies. But she was also reacting to intense domestic pressure two weeks before a crucial regional election.

Over the weekend, opposition Social Democrats and Greens, who took the hugely popular decision to phase-out nuclear when in government a decade ago, accused Ms Merkel’s government of pursuing a reckless nuclear energy policy.

A long-planned anti-nuclear demonstration in Baden-Württemberg on Sunday drew tens of thousands of protestors – a sign of how the issue could mobilise Ms Merkel’s opponents in elections in the wealthy state on March 27.

Ms Merkel’s Christian Democrats have ruled the south-western region for decades, but have faced an unprecedented challenge from Greens and Social Democrats, buoyed by a row over a huge new station for Stuttgart, the state capital.

Just as polls suggested the fortunes of the CDU were improving again, the disaster in Japan threatened to mire the party and Stefan Mappus, its pro-nuclear state governor , in a highly charged debate about the safety of the power source.

Mr Mappus this year committed the state of Baden-Württemberg to buying EnBW, the regional utility and Germany’s fourth biggest nuclear power generator, from France’s EDF after pushing for an extension of nuclear plant lifetimes of 20 years or more.

While competitors RWE, Eon and Vattenfall made no public statements, Hans-Peter Villis, EnBW’s chief executive, offered politicians an “open dialogue” about the future of older nuclear power plants in Europe’s largest economy.

Tanja Goenner, Baden-Württermberg’s environment minister, was quoted by German media as saying EnBW’s Neckarwestheim I plant, one of the nation’s oldest, could be forced to shutdown following the safety review.

Ms Merkel pledged “a through security review without any taboos” nationally and said she would push the issue at European and G20 level to stop nations with high standards being threatened by unsafe plants in other countries.

While she stressed the needs of industry and climate protection meant Germany would not be able to get rid of nuclear power completely any time soon, Ms Merkel said: “We can’t just go straight back to doing business as usual.”

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