* Gov’t confident it will win the case -Minister
* Utilities could claim as much as 19 bln euros
* Final decision to take several months (Recasts, adds comments from RWE, Minister, graphic)
By Christoph Steitz and Tom Käckenhoff
KARLSRUHE, Germany, March 15 (Reuters) - German power firms and government members clashed at a court hearing over the country’s controversial decision to shut down all nuclear plants by 2022, a lawsuit that could allow utilities to claim 19 billion euros ($21 billion) in damages.
In a case that pits a struggling energy industry against the government, Germany’s Constitutional Court will examine the arguments of E.ON, RWE and Vattenfall , who want to be compensated for the closure.
The two-day hearing that opened on Tuesday comes five years after Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, which triggered Chancellor Angela Merkel’s move to speed up the nuclear shutdown and reverse an earlier agreement that extended the lifespans of some plants.
“The decision to end the use of nuclear power as soon as possible following the drastic events of Fukushima not only meets legal requirements, it was and continues to be the right decision,” Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks told the eight-judge panel.
She said she was confident the government would win the case.
The decision deprived power firms of one of their main sources of profit and pitched them into crisis as the focus moved to renewables while electricity prices tumbled.
The government said at the time that the risks for nuclear power had changed as a result of the Fukushima meltdown that was caused by a tsunami following a 9.0 magnitude earthquake.
Utilities argue the events had no impact on the security of Germany’s nuclear stations, while the accelerated shutdown cancelled 1,800 terawatt hours of planned production, enough to power Europe’s biggest economy for about three years.
“The risks connected with nuclear energy did not change following Fukushima, just their reception,” said Matthias Hartung, head of the power generation business at RWE, Germany’s largest power producer.
Johannes Teyssen, chief executive of larger peer E.ON, told the court that the utilities were not disputing the decision to abandon nuclear power, but said fair compensation was needed as part of the reversal.
“We paid our taxes, we paid our wages, we have done what every other company does with its investments,” Teyssen told reporters earlier, adding E.ON had invested billions of euros in nuclear technology over the past decades.
While a decision is expected to take several months, the hearing could provide insight into the thinking of the judges’ panel, either through its line of questioning or through comments that might hint at its eventual opinion. ($1 = 0.9000 euros)
Additional reporting by Ursula Knapp; Editing by Keith Weir and David Evans