The Magazine

Auf Wiedersehen to Atomkraft

Jun 13, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 37 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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The issue of nuclear power will be front and center when German chancellor Angela Merkel visits Washington this week. Consider the front-page story in the May 31 Washington Post: “Germany to shut down nuclear plants by 2022: Decision in aftermath of crisis in Japan is a turnaround for Merkel.” The headline was striking. It also didn’t make any sense.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel

German Chancellor Angela Merkel

AP PHOTO / michael sohn

In March, an earthquake that registered 9.0 on the Richter scale—the worst in Japan’s history—set off a tsunami with waves cresting almost 80 feet high. It overwhelmed the sea walls protecting the Fukushima nuclear plant, causing a partial meltdown. Are Germans actually afraid the same thing could happen in their country? That a tsunami could slam them from the North Sea? Do they also fear a giant asteroid will soon hit the planet? And what about acid-blooded parasitic aliens who use humans as hosts?

In her government’s announcement, Chancellor Merkel noted her administration had already made plans to close down all nuclear facilities by 2036. But, after witnessing “the unimaginable accident in Fukushima,” Merkel said, “we had to reconsider the role of atomic energy and therefore decided we needed to design and proceed on a more determined path.” As Steve Mufson explained in the Post, the move “will require advances in power storage and management because nuclear power runs constantly; wind and solar run intermittently. The German government also said it would try to cut energy use by 10 percent.”

American opponents of nuclear energy can now look to Germany as a beacon of hope. If Europe’s most powerful economy—run by a conservative coalition, no less—can be so environmentally bold, why can’t the United States under Barack Obama aim for a similar goal? In fact, though, the president should be wary of following the chancellor’s lead. Her decision was complicated. And, as we all know, Germany is a complicated country.

The choice to be nuclear-free is deeply rooted in the political psychology of Germany. So no, the Germans are not fearing a tsunami rising from the Swedish coast. What they do fear, though, are nuclear reactors. According to a recent ZDF poll, 50 percent of Germans favor an immediate withdrawal from atomic energy. And in a list of everyday concerns, nuclear power comes in second, only behind unemployment. These antinuclear sentiments have been growing not since the Japanese earthquake, but since the late 1970s and the birth of the Green movement.

“The modern Green party is rooted in the nuclear question,” says Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, a senior director at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “It’s their founding rationale.” And because the Greens are now polling at approximately 25 percent, practically tied with the Social Democrats and trailing only Merkel’s Christian Democrats (33 percent), their influence over the nuclear debate is profound. Kleine-Brockhoff and others note another turning point in mainstream Germany’s attitude toward atomic energy—the 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl and the fallout over Europe.

On a more immediate level, Merkel’s decision to accelerate the closure of the 17 remaining atomic power plants comes after her party suffered consecutive blows in state elections, beginning with North Rhine-Westphalia in May 2010, later in Rhineland-Palatinate, and most devastatingly in Baden-Württemberg (home to Mercedes-Benz and Porsche) where conservatives had ruled for nearly 60 years. “Merkel wants to take the issue away from the Greens,” says one longtime member of the Free Democratic party, the government’s junior coalition partner.

Nor should one forget the practical concerns that raise questions about the plan’s feasibility. As Steve LeVine recently pointed out in Foreign Policy, “Germany—already reliant on Russia’s Gazprom for 30 percent of its natural gas—will be buying much more gas in order to compensate for the loss of nuclear power, which provides 28 percent of Germany’s electricity.” Of course, maybe the Germans will rely more on coal or hydraulic fracturing instead—surely the Greens would have no objection, right?

Meanwhile, Merkel’s conservative critics—those in the media and in the business sector—are already scoffing. They talk of impending blackouts. Some nuclear energy companies are threatening to sue for damages in the billions. According to Die Welt (translation by Der Spiegel), “The nuclear phaseout marks a creeping rejection of the economic model which has transformed Germany into one of the richest countries in the world in recent decades. .  .  . What will the new energy age cost us Germans in terms of money and jobs?”

Seems to us like a pretty good question—one the Obama administration should keep in mind when the antinuclear lobby demands the United States follow Germany off the grid.

—Victorino Matus


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