Under the legislation, the first of the plants will be closed in 2003 and the last in 2021. Nuclear waste will be permitted to be stored in the plants for up to 40 years. Transport of waste will only be allowed until July 1, 2005. The measure includes a ban on building new nuclear plants.

The German atomic forum (DAtF) said it welcomed the fact that the legal basis of the accord was now in place. “The energy companies herewith get a framework for the undisturbed running of nuclear plants,” it said.

The leading opposition party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), had argued that eliminating nuclear energy would force Germany to use dirtier power sources. If it returns to power, the CDU would try to reverse the legislation. CDU environment spokesman Peter Paziorek said the decision to decommission nuclear power is a “historical mistake”. He added: “It endangers security of supply in Germany and also questions our climate-political aims.”

Meanwhile, economics minister Werner Müller has published a government energy policy paper warning that “over-ambitious” targets for greenhouse gas emissions cuts would damage the economy and reduce national energy security. The report reveals a deep rift between the Federal Ministry of Economy (headed by Müller) and the Green-led Federal Ministry of Environment & Nuclear Safety.