Out of Control: Merkel Gambles Credibility with Nuclear U-Turn

In the aftermath of the accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made an astounding political U-turn. She went from being an enthusiastic supporter of nuclear energy to arguing for phasing it out as soon as possible. Many feel her new course is not credible, and it is legally, financially and politically risky. By SPIEGEL Staff.

Photo Gallery: Merkel's Nuclear Option Photos
DPA

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel stepped out of her official vehicle in Offenburg in southwestern Germany last Wednesday, she got the usual reception from the anti-nuclear protesters gathered there. "Shut them down!" they chanted.

The important parliamentary election in the state of Baden-Württemberg on March 27 was less than two weeks away. The accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan was on the verge of turning into a huge disaster. Meanwhile, in provincial Baden-Württemberg, activists calling for a phase-out of atomic energy were venting their rage against a chancellor they see as being in bed with the nuclear industry. Merkel was greeted with boos and the shrill sounds of whistles. The vocal protestors, holding up anti-nuclear signs, were determined that their rally would set the tone for the rest of the evening.

But they were mistaken.

When the protestors unfurled their banners in the room where Merkel was about to speak, they encountered a previously unknown side of the chancellor. Merkel the proponent of nuclear energy had become Merkel the phase-out chancellor. The "alarming events" in Japan had "changed a few things," she said. She referred to nuclear energy as a "bridge technology" that would lead the way to the "age of renewable energy" and talked about "taking precautions." The boos began to die down, and then Merkel said something that finally brought silence to the room. The former coalition government of the center-left Social Democratic Party and the Green Party "wanted a phase-out by 2020," she said. "If we can reach this goal sooner, all the better."

Like the Pope Supporting the Pill

Germany is witnessing a stunning political about-face. Less than six months ago, the coalition government of Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) extended the life spans of Germany's nuclear reactors by up to 14 years. The chancellor called it a "revolution" at the time, while Vice Chancellor Guido Westerwelle was full of praise, saying that a responsible energy policy could not "do without nuclear energy."

Now Merkel wants to phase out the risky technology even more quickly than her center-left predecessors. Officially, Germany's seven oldest reactors will be shut down for a three-month inspection, but behind the scenes it's clear that at least three will have to be shut down for good.

It's as if the pope were suddenly advocating the use of birth control pills. When the leaders of the CDU/CSU/FDP coalition came into office, extending the nuclear age was one of their priorities. Now they have entered a bizarre race to be the first to ring in its demise.

The outcome of the reactor drama in Fukushima remains uncertain. It is clear, however, that it will change the political landscape in Germany. The Greens hope to capitalize on the rekindled nuclear debate and replace the SPD as the leading party on the left. Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, who experienced the worst defeat of his time in office when the administration decided to extend the operating lives of nuclear plants, can expect to regain stature as the chief strategist in Merkel's phase-out effort. Meanwhile, the conservatives are abandoning their last unique selling point.

Risky Game

Merkel has embarked on a risky game, and at the moment there is little indication that she will emerge as a winner. Her political U-turn is too abrupt and poorly prepared for that. Many in her own ranks fear that the legal underpinnings of Merkel's so-called "moratorium" are too weak, and they are worried about the credibility of her junior partner, the business-friendly FDP. Can a party that only recently was still touting nuclear energy as "eco-energy" expect to be taken seriously at the head of the anti-nuclear movement?

Probably not, according to initial surveys. Almost 70 percent of Germans see Merkel's about-face as a campaign ploy, and in Baden-Württemberg, which has been ruled by the conservatives for decades, the shock of Fukushima could cost the CDU/FDP coalition its majority. With the state election less than a week away, the CDU has already lost 3 percentage points to the Greens, according to the Infratest dimap polling institute, which has the CDU on 39 percent, the Greens on 24 percent and the SPD on 22 percent.

Voters are deeply suspicious, but Merkel sees no alternative. The notion that a reactor disaster of this magnitude can occur in a high-tech country like Japan is, in her words, a "turning point for the entire world." To continue her previous nuclear policy would be impossible. In responding to the horrifying images from Fukushima, Merkel has set off a political chain reaction. It remains to be seen whether she can control it.

Nuclear Emergency

The process began on Friday, March 11, when a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck Japan at 6:45 a.m. Central Europe Time. The Japanese government declared a nuclear emergency about four hours later.

As the scope of the disaster was becoming clear, German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen was in a meeting with his ministry's department heads in Bonn. The meeting was interrupted and Röttgen assembled a crisis team to gather information and analyze the situation.

Chancellor Merkel had flown to Brussels on that day. While attending a session of the European Council, she was receiving a steady stream of text messages from Berlin and surfing the web for more information. According to a source close to the chancellor, it was already intuitively clear to Merkel on that Friday evening that "all the answers (the government) has given until now, to the best of its knowledge and belief, in relation to its nuclear policies are no longer sufficient." But observers initially saw few signs of that insight.

The situation in Japan escalated on Saturday when an explosion occurred in the first reactor building, prompting fears of a looming disaster around the world, including in Germany. Environment Minister Röttgen and Ronald Pofalla, the head of the German Chancellery, got a sense of this fear -- coming from their own base, no less -- during the CDU's state party convention that Saturday in Siegen in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Röttgen sensed that the mood in the CDU was shifting. In the past, support for nuclear energy could consistently be relied upon to generate a strongly positive emotional response at such events. Not anymore.

'Keep It Under Wraps'

Merkel called CSU Chairman Horst Seehofer at noon to discuss their options, one of which was to stick with their existing policy on nuclear energy. But Merkel also began probing the idea of a moratorium on extending reactor life spans. "Please keep it under wraps for now," she told Seehofer.

The leaders of the coalition met at the Chancellery for a crisis meeting early on Saturday evening. In Baden-Württemberg, where voters go to the polls this Sunday, 60,000 people had taken to the streets to demonstrate against nuclear power. The idea of a moratorium was discussed once again. FDP Chairman Westerwelle was particularly opposed to changing course, saying that it was important not to exaggerate things and react prematurely. The meeting broke up without reaching a decision. At that point, there was still little evidence of the government's looming 180-degree policy reversal.

At the same time, Baden-Württemberg Governor Stefan Mappus had summoned his key advisers and senior staff to a crisis meeting in the state capital Stuttgart. Mappus, the most vocal proponent of nuclear power within the conservatives, was getting nervous about his prospects in next Sunday's state election. The group decided to turn to Berlin for advice, hoping the Merkel administration would send a clear message that the events in Japan constitute a turning point.

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1. The Nuclear Apprentice
robertshule 03/21/2011
Apprentice in the shop alone, Thinks since Meister went for the day, He can have some magic go his way. I will make power he atones, I can take nuclear fuel, And put it in a water pool. Steam will rise, An turn a blade, Easy way this power is made. There were things he did not surmise, And much he did not consider, For retrospect made him bitter. Geisters from the closet, he called on for detail, Without thought on what they entail. Next thing you know he lost his bet Radiation flew all about. Humbled the apprentice lost his clout. Meister the situation is grave. The geisters that I bid, I can now not get rid. Geisters in the closet and behave! The good old Meister commands. Magic is only for the Meister's hands. Unfortunately, unlike in this variant on Goethe's famous ballad, there is no Meister when it comes to nuclear power, and the inherent problems are not so easily waved away. Ms. Merkel, and the German people are most wise to step away from nuclear power.
2.
BTraven 03/22/2011
Should she change her opinion again she can resort to Mr. Monbiot’s arguments. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/mar/21/pro-nuclear-japan-fukushima
3. Short term thinking
killerkat 03/22/2011
There are so many "clean" alternatives to generating power: Thermal, wind, hydro and solar. For some strange reason nuclear power has been added to that list. Aside from Chernobyl, 3 Mile Island and now Fukushima that leave local areas unihabitable, there are hundreds of nuclear power plants around the world that are leaking radiation. Some, and many in the United States, have been closed down without any further elaboration from the authorities as to clean up measures. This is more than likely due to the fact, that environmental contamination from uranium or plutonium is virtually impossible. Well, except for time, which in the case of plutonium -244 is roughly 80 Million years. Einstein' in his statement' regretted his contribution to the development of this technology. What we know about radiation today is more than frightening, yet politicians are forcing nuclear energy down our throats. The United States, one of the world's largest energy user, produces less than 15% of its energy via nuclear power plants. In fact, there is more hydro-electric energy being produced than nuclear energy. If we are at a time where we can make a decision which path to follow, 1) True clean energy or 2) Contaminating Nuclear energy, why not chose teh right path. It may cost us a little more in the short run, but in the long run it will benefit the environment and the health of future generations. I strongly believe all German citizens need to support Angela in her efforts to alter the path for Germany. I truly wish that Obama would be as progressive in the United States as Angela is in Germany.
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