The German government announced this week that it is accelerating plans to close its nuclear power plants, and Italy is following suit with a one year moratorium. The announcement comes in the wake of the severe nuclear situation in Japan that followed the earthquake and resulting tsunami, and it is a clear indication of how quickly the political winds have shifted on the issue. Italy had planned on pushing nuclear power by referendum, and Germany has 17 reactors which it now plans to replace completely with renewable energy. German Chancellor’s Angela Merkel minced no words when she declared the situation in Japan a “catastrophe of apocalyptic dimensions.”

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The announcements are an about-face for the two conservative governments and may pave the road for other nations around the world to make similar efforts. Italian Premier Silvio Berusconi’s Cabinet issued the one year moratorium after pushing to adopt nuclear energy as a way to reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuel imports.

The German government has already shut down 7 older nuclear reactors for extensive inspections and it will now accelerate its plans for taking all of its plants offline (they originally planned to extend the plants’ life for another 12 years). The plants produce 23% of the country’s power, so efforts to cut nuclear energy out of the mix put tremendous pressure on Germany to accelerate its renewable energy and smart grid technologies.

Germany has made the most aggressive effort in the world to adopt renewable energy — it is aiming to run 40% of it grid using clean energy in 10 years. Cost estimates for the conversion are as low as 0.5 cents a kilowatt, but due to the complexity of predicting equipment cost and upgrading the grid it may be too early to have a realistic estimate.

One thing is for certain — the cost of nuclear energy has historically skyrocketed much higher than estimates for construction alone. AP reports that the only two European reactors currently under construction in France and Finland have nearly doubled in cost from original estimates. Nuclear fuel disposal is also a quagmire in which Germany has not been able to find a viable long-term solution. Japan’s 40 year old Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant reactor was still in operation in part due to the spiraling cost of building new plants. Of course, all estimates go out the window when a serious accident occurs — an accident that has now altered the debate about nuclear energy.