Helmut Kohl, who served as Germany's chancellor between 1982 and 1998, has stepped into the debate surrounding the government's sudden reversal of course regarding nuclear energy in the wake of the ongoing disaster in Japan. In a guest column published in Friday's edition of Bild, Germany's top-selling tabloid, Kohl branded calls for a quicker phase-out of nuclear energy in Germany "overly hasty" and said that the country had "no alternative" but to continuing using it until viable alternatives were found, if it wanted to avoid entering "a dangerous dead end."
In the days following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan that critically damaged the Fukushima nuclear plant, German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued an official decree temporarily shutting down seven older nuclear power plants and subjecting all of Germany's 17 plants to strict safety reviews. The move was seen as an abrupt backtracking from a law her government -- a coalition made up of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) -- passed last fall that extends the lifespans of nuclear power plants in Germany by an average of 12 years. The law amended legislation passed in 2002 -- under the Social Democrat-Green Party coalition government of Kohl's successor Gerhard Schröder -- that mandated a complete nuclear phase-out in Germany by 2021.
'The Lesson from Japan Cannot Be a Step Backwards'
In his op-ed piece, Kohl acknowledged that the disaster in Japan had left Germans "stunned," but he warned against allowing it to "cripple" Germany and to make Germans "lose sight of reality."
Kohl, 80, led Germany when the country's newest nuclear power plants went online despite massive protests. He stressed that Germany's decision to use nuclear energy and to accept its associated risks was a conscious one. "The lesson from Japan cannot be for us to take the proverbial leap backwards. For the time being, the lesson from Japan has to be that we accept that what has happened in Japan is terrifying, but -- to put it bluntly -- is also part of life." Since risks are an unavoidable part of life, he said, Germany's priorities should be "to take precautionary measures and minimize risks."
He added that retreating from nuclear energy would "not help anyone" and would "even make the world a more dangerous place" because Germany's respected engineering know-how would no longer be used to improve it.
Kohl also stressed that it would be "a mistake with serious consequences to assume that other countries" would follow Germany's lead in forsaking nuclear energy. "It has to be clear to us," he said, "that as long as there is no credible, competitive and eco-friendly alternative to nuclear energy, there will also be no global phase-out of nuclear energy."
Finally, Kohl warned his fellow Germans that doing so would "undermine the foundation of our industrialized society, isolate us technologically, increase our dependence on less safe nuclear power plants and potentially increase the number of less safe nuclear power plants in the immediate vicinity (of Germany) because of our increased demand."
One in a Series of Blows to Merkel
Kohl's remarks come at a particularly difficult time for Merkel. Kohl held Merkel's current position as the head of the CDU for 15 years, led the country for the longest stretch since Otto von Bismarck, and is hailed by many for his roles in leading Germany in the waning years of the Cold War, in shepherding the country through reunification and in pushing the implementation of the European common currency. Although his reputation suffered a serious blow after the 1999 revelation of a party financing scandal, the CDU has recently been re-embracing its elder statesman and his words carry much weight. Given that Kohl served for years as Merkel's political mentor before her rise to become the CDU's leader in the wake of the slush fund scandal, the words are also a clear swipe at the chancellor's policies.
The remarks also came a day after the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung published an abbreviated transcript of a speech given by Economics Minister Rainer Brüderle of the FDP to the Federation of German Industries (BDI) on the day of Merkel's decree suggesting that the move had less to do with safety concerns and more to do with "approaching state elections."
Later Thursday, the BDI released a statement saying the minutes misquoted Brüderle, and the minister told the Bundestag, the federal parliament, the same thing. Still, many remain skeptical of the denials and, on Friday, the newspaper quoted people who attended the speech as saying that Brüderle did in fact make such a statement.
Indeed, many have seen Merkel's about-face on nuclear energy as an attempt to shore up support for her ailing party. The CDU saw sharp drops in support in a February election in Hamburg and in last Sunday's vote in Saxony-Anhalt. This weekend will see two more elections, in the southwestern states of Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg.
A new survey released on Wednesday by German pollster Forsa found that nationwide support for Merkel's Christian Democrats has plummeted by three percentage points in the last week, to 33 percent. Furthermore, only 50 percent of Germans consider their chancellor to be "credible," way down from the 68 percent rating she enjoyed a year and a half ago.