Reports of explosions at Japanese nuclear reactors and dangerous radiation leaks pushed Angela Merkel into a sudden U-turn regarding nuclear energy on Monday.
Just last October, her centre-right coalition pushed through a controversial extension of Germany's use of nuclear power, reversing a plan by the previous Social Democratic-Green government to phase out atomic energy by 2021.
But on Monday, Merkel announced she was suspending an agreement to delay the closing of the nation's ageing nuclear power stations. The government on Tuesday said seven reactors would be shut down during the three-month moratorium while comprehensive safety inspections were carried out.
Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) have long argued that an extension of nuclear power was essential to meeting the country's emission targets to combat global warming. Merkel also said that though renewable energy production was her government's long-term goal, the technology was not yet advanced enough to meet Germany's energy needs.
But an overwhelming majority of Germans oppose nuclear power, and despite her panicked policy reversal, Merkel's conservatives face a potential political backlash for their nuclear stance.
It couldn't come at a worse time. On March 27, there is an election in the important state of Baden-Württemberg that could see the CDU lose power for the first time in nearly 60 years.
Now, observers say, Merkel must be fearing her own nuclear meltdown at the polls.
The leftist daily Tageszeitung said this latest move shows Merkel is more interested in extending the life of her government than the lives of nuclear plants.
"The coalition might win some time with this manoeuvre. An election defeat in (Baden-Württemberg) would be a disaster for the CDU and this moratorium is an attempt to lower the chances of that happening. But is it all just rhetoric? No, because the coalition is not going to be able to simply switch off the debate over nuclear power after three months. The situation in Japan has deeply affected the German public, far beyond just Green party circles. Even a majority of Christian Democrats were against extending the nuclear plants' lifetimes. On Monday, Merkel's nuclear policy simply crashed and burned, although some people are still in denial."
Munich's centre-left Süddeutsche Zeitung said the debate over nuclear energy has now changed decisively and that the crisis in Japan will likely have real consequences in Germany – and that's a good thing.
"If this is more than just a tactic to win some time before state elections, German will likely soon have seven fewer nuclear power plants than it does today – those plants whose construction are accident prone and whose thin outer shells provide no protection from terrorist attacks. The catastrophe in Fukushima will result in exactly the thing the government coalition circumvented last autumn, namely, requiring that nuclear plants be able to withstand air attacks. That's the least the government should do to ensure nuclear safety, and it's long overdue."
The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said that this development could spell the final end of Germany's nuclear programme, the debate over which has been marked largely by ideological grandstanding and the demonization of political opponents.
"But Germany, unlike almost any other country, has the capability to responsibly handle radioactive materials due to both our highly sensitive public and well-functioning institutions. For example, when protests hit the Mülheim-Kärlich nuclear plant, which is in much less danger from earthquakes than any Japanese facility, the German courts did not hesitate to demand that new security measures be implemented. In China and many other countries where nuclear energy is being promoted, that is not the case. But now, Germany will no longer be a role model for them to emulate."
The right-wing daily Die Welt described the challenge facing Angela Merkel as "historic," comparing it to that faced by former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.
"Despite the pacifist voices in his own party and those of his coalition partner, the Greens, Schröder successfully advocated German participation in the military mission in Afghanistan. Angela Merkel might now go down in history as the nuclear-exit chancellor, despite herself. But does she have the will and the power to assume leadership when it comes to saying goodbye to nuclear power? We will only know that after the current moratorium expires and this year's important state elections are history."
The centrist Der Tagesspiegel from Berlin said the nuclear disaster in Japan has finally made the German government open its eyes.
"The government is backpedalling, terrified of the upcoming elections and caught up in grim reality. Now it can no longer deny what it has always disputed: nuclear power is a high-risk technology, which tolerates neither human failure nor natural disaster."