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Opinion: A Chancellor Made of Pudding, not Iron

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Chancellor Angela Merkel's shutdown of seven nuclear reactors this week was the right decision, but it was made for the wrong reasons. She wasn't concerned about the dangers of nuclear energy. Rather, she was concerned about losing her own power.

In Germany, "Mutti," or "mother," is a name often used in Berlin political circles in reference to Chancellor Angela Merkel. A protester's sign reads: "Mutti is emitting radiation." The others read: "Turn them off!" Zoom
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In Germany, "Mutti," or "mother," is a name often used in Berlin political circles in reference to Chancellor Angela Merkel. A protester's sign reads: "Mutti is emitting radiation." The others read: "Turn them off!"

Moratorium is derived from the Latin word morari -- to delay or postpone. And delayed, of course, is certainly not the same as abolished. Indeed, this week the German chancellor did not eliminate a law passed by her government last autumn that calls for the extension of nuclear plant lifespans here by an average of 12 years each. Angela Merkel said: "The situation after the moratorium will be a different one than the situation before the moratorium." What a nice sophism from the philosopher in the Chancellery.

One could, of course, choose to believe her. After all, by the time the three-month moratorium comes to an end, important state elections -- set to take place this week and next -- will be history and Japan will have faded from the headlines. Panicky Germans will no doubt have found a new pet issue by then to whip their excitable souls into a frenzy.

Once the summer break kicks in, the seven reactors that Merkel moved to temporarily shut down this week will go back online.

Six months ago, Angela Merkel announced an "autumn of decisions." It was an artificial attempt at breathing life into the political process -- one which had only become necessary because her government had, to that point, distinguished itself primarily by counter-productive internal bickering.

Short-Sighted Political Opportunism

One of the rushed decisions was that to extend the lifespans of Germany's nuclear reactors. Merkel declared that German reactors were safe, regardless of whether they were old or new. Safety was paramount, as were German energy supplies.

Those are no small things. The future of the country is at stake. But as a German citizen, one would prefer that such decisions be made with the appropriate gravitas, and not as a result of short-sighted political opportunism. As a German citizen, one would like to see our political leadership accept and bear responsibility for their decisions.

What has happened in Germany's nuclear power plants that has called into question Merkel's assessment from last autumn? Do we live in a world of magic in which the explosion of a nuclear power plant in Japan can have hidden influence on an atomic power station in Germany? No. It's simpler than that. We live in a world in which the German chancellor ignores today what she said yesterday and depends on the short attention spans of her people -- and for good reason.

The German journalist Florian Illies recently wrote in the influential weekly Die Zeit: "Now that the world has seen how a nuclear power plant can explode, its faith in the ability to control the technology has been destroyed." But that's sadly just a pipe dream. It presupposes a logical nexus of reality, perception and action that neither voters nor politicians possess. The belief in our ability to master the technology was always just that: a belief. It didn't have anything to do with logic. And there's simply no reason to believe that people will learn from the past.

The "Pudding Lady"

A catastrophe is the unexpected concurrence of unexpected events. Catastrophe by its very definition cannot be planned. There is always a residual risk. In the case of nuclear power, that is unacceptable -- and that is why the risks of nuclear power cannot be accepted. It has always been the case that a small probability, multiplied by vast potential damage results in a serious ethical question -- one that no human can take responsibility for. The accountability is simply too great.

Politicians have chosen to ignore the ethical implications because cheap energy results in a high standard of living. The use of nuclear power is a continuous break with reason -- we have known that ever since the first reactor went online in 1954 near Moscow.

No, it is not the dangers of nuclear power that have moved Merkel, but the risk of losing power. The March 27 election in Baden-Württemburg could become for her what 2005 state election in North Rhine-Westphalia was for former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder: The beginning of the end. Her party's hold on the state must be defended at any price -- even that of her own credibility. The speed with which she is losing it is breathtaking.

Margaret Thatcher once said of herself: "This lady is not for turning." That's why people called her the "Iron Lady." Such a nickname doesn't apply to Merkel, though. Our chancellor isn't made of iron, she's made of pudding.

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