The World from Berlin Al-Qaida as a Justification for Merkel's Nuclear Phase-Out

Must nuclear reactors be able to withstand a plane crash? Safety checks currently underway on Germany's 17 nuclear reactors will address exactly that question. For German commentators, it has long been clear that German facilities are vulnerable to such attacks -- and that Merkel is merely preparing the country for a rapid atomic phase-out.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has suddenly grown extremely skeptical of nuclear power.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has suddenly grown extremely skeptical of nuclear power.

In all the political wrangling that has accompanied Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to temporarily shut down seven aging German nuclear reactors, her stated reason for doing so -- namely, safety checks -- has often become lost in the shuffle. But on Thursday, the Reactor Safety Commission (RSK), released a "catalogue of requirements" that outlines the conditions that all 17 reactors in Germany will have to fulfill before they are allowed to continue operations.

In addition to looking into the possible effects natural catastrophes such as earthquakes and floods might have on the country's nuclear facilities, the catalogue also includes checks on their ability to withstand "man-made hazards." Of particular concern are airplane crashes, whether terrorist-caused or not. The facilities' susceptibility to attacks modelled on the Stuxnet virus, which reportedly crippled Iranian efforts to enrich uranium in 2010, is also to be checked.

The safety checks come in response to the nuclear disaster unfolding in Fukushima, Japan. In the days following the earthquake and tsunami that crippled the nuclear facility there, Merkel quickly suspended a law, passed just last autumn, that called for nuclear reactor lifespans in Germany to be extended. Seven reactors built prior to 1980 were taken offline.

Merkel's decision last autumn to extend nuclear reactors was touted as a major policy change, meant to demonstrate her government's effectiveness. The extension essentially repealed a decade-old law passed by then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder mandating that Germany go nuclear-free by 2022.

The move was widely criticized as being a last ditch attempt to avoid significant losses in late-March regional elections -- losses which were realized last Sunday.

German energy companies have likewise been critical and have repeatedly emphasized that reactors in the country are safe. Indeed, on Friday, the energy giant RWE filed a legal challenge to the forced shutdown of its Biblis A reactor. It has been estimated that the three-month shutdown will cost the four German energy companies which operate nuclear reactors -- RWE, E.on, EnBW and Vattenfall -- more than €500 million ($710 million).

Concerns about the ability of German reactors to withstand direct hits from a plane crash spiked following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US. It was quickly determined that most of the country's nuclear facilities are vulnerable. Indeed, some of the country's older reactors were equipped with a kind of "fog machine" designed to envelop the facilities in case of danger to make them invisible from above. The new safety checks will once again include possible plane crash scenarios as well as other hypothetical terrorist attacks.

Initial results from the tests will be presented in six weeks, when Merkel's three-month moratorium period expires. An ethics commission will then examine the results and consider the risks that the German public is willing to bear from nuclear power.

Politicians have been eager to ensure the public that those facilities found unsafe will be taken immediately offline. Berlin also appears to be in favor of leaving the country's seven oldest reactors offline permanently. German commentators took a look at reactor safety on Friday.

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"The Reactor Safety Commission (RSK) need not spend much time investigating whether or not German nuclear reactors can withstand a crash from a wide-body aircraft. It has been clear for years that they cannot…"

"Now the RSK must look closely into the issue again in order to buttress the politicians' arguments for a premature shutdown of the facilities. A new 'nuclear consensus' with the owners of the plants that is on the horizon promises to be more difficult than the pact entered into 11 years ago. At that time, politicians offered to control the anti-nuclear protests in exchange for limits on nuclear plant lifespans. But Merkel's governing coalition cannot make that guarantee. Its only remaining threat is unrest."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Merkel's phase-out of nuclear power is going like clockwork. Now, inspectors have begun immediately checking nuclear power plants for their vulnerability, but the results should be clear to many of the experts: The reactors are equipped for normal functioning and may be able to handle some disruptions. But targeted attacks from outside -- whether from an airplane, rocket-propelled grenade or computer virus -- would render some of them defenseless. It is good that it is being checked, rather than having terrorists do the testing."

"The result of the tests is preparing the way for the second part of the phase-out: the arrival of an ethics commission as a moral authority. It will occupy itself with the findings of the experts and will not be able to shrug off any risks. When concrete information about vulnerability is released, the federal government can no longer get around finally implementing the safety recommendations. With the commission, the government has put itself in a tight spot. And it won't be coming out of it again, that much is certain."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"The government's much-anticipated checklist for the safety of German nuclear reactors is now public… The most pressing danger is that of an airplane crashing into a reactor. Ironically, al-Qaida is now giving the federal government its most important argument for halting the operation of German reactors."

"The danger presented by airplanes has been known since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. But only now, after the catastrophe in Japan and the lost state elections, is the government's back so against the wall that it is using that danger as a justification for its nuclear policies."

"They need to steel themselves, not against the voters -- because the most important election this year has already been lost for the CDU and the FDP -- but rather, in the coming months, against their old allies, the energy companies. The heads of those companies are angry because they now have to go without the money their reactors so easily raked in. They now fear expensive and complicated investments that could take years to complete as well as the onslaught of pestering state bureaucrats and citizens who could sue them."

"In their power struggle with the energy company chiefs, the government must gather its strongest arguments to halt the companies from filing damage claims. At some point the dust will settle, or so goes the hope."

Charles Hawley and Mary Beth Warner


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