By Christoph Steitz and Vera Eckert
KARLSRUHE/FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Germany's highest court ruled on Tuesday that hastening the shutdown of nuclear plants after Japan's Fukushima disaster violated some of the property rights of utility companies, allowing them to seek limited damages.
Utilities E.ON <EONGn.DE>, RWE <RWEG.DE> and Vattenfall [VATN.UL] sued the German government, arguing the decision to close all nuclear plants by 2022 amounted to expropriation.
Berlin said nuclear risks had changed as a result of the Fukushima meltdown in 2011, caused by a tsunami following a 9.0 magnitude earthquake. Its move to end nuclear power has been welcomed by a majority of German voters.
The ruling suggests that utilities will only be able to recoup a fraction of the 19 billion euro maximum ($20.4 billion) of damages they are seeking, while actual payments could take years due to lengthy court cases that are expected to follow.
"It is certainly true that this is not about the billions of euros in compensation that have been mentioned by the media," a spokeswoman for RWE, Germany's largest electricity producer, said, echoing comments from Germany's environment minister.
Shares in E.ON and RWE jumped on the news and were up 4.7 and 2.9 percent at 1251 GMT, despite the likely delay in receiving any compensation.
The constitutional court in Karlsruhe said the government's actions in 2011 were partly incompatible with ownership laws and also robbed Vattenfall and RWE of production allowances that were allocated in 2002.
Furthermore, the law does not include compensation for lost investments utilities made between December 2010 and March 2011, after an extension to the life spans of nuclear power plants agreed in late 2010.
The government must provide new legislation to address these issues by June 30, 2018, the court said.
"Setting rules for compensation can take several years and it is unclear how much money the companies will be awarded," said Roland Vetter, of PraXis Partners, a London-based utilities investment specialist.
The utilities need money as they must start contributing next year to a 23.6 billion euro fund in exchange for shifting liability for nuclear waste storage to the government.
This was agreed with the government in October, removing uncertainty about a major drag on utility stocks.
"I could imagine that the government will set up a fund to deal with all the issues at once, including the funding of nuclear waste," said Michael Bormann of law firm Simmons & Simmons.
(Additional reporting by Tom Kaeckenhoff and Ursula Knapp; Editing by Maria Sheahan and David Evans)