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.
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.
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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