Nuclear Power for the Winter Germany's Green Party Confronts Its Last Taboo

German Economy Minister Robert Habeck wants to keep two nuclear power plants on standby to prevent electricity shortages this winter now that Putin has cut energy supplies. The Green Party will have to decide if it can reconcile this with the anti-atomic position that served as its genesis. Will the party revolt?
German Economy Minister Robert Habeck (left, front) and anti-nuclear protesters: "Atomic Energy? Not a Single Day Longer!"

German Economy Minister Robert Habeck (left, front) and anti-nuclear protesters: "Atomic Energy? Not a Single Day Longer!"

Foto:

MICHELE TANTUSSI / REUTERS

The protesters are already lined up outside the Federal Press Conference building in Berlin. Greenpeace activists are drumming on tin barrels that have been painted yellow. "Not a single day longer," reads the protest banner they hold up to Robert Habeck.

The German economy minister is about to announce the results of the stress test for the three nuclear power plants that are still online in Germany, but before that, the Green Party politician is to get a taste of what he will face if he announces the wrong thing. Or what the demonstrators consider to be the wrong thing.

Habeck, though, isn't in the mood for discussions. A terse "morning" passes his lips, then he turns the corner and enters the building. The protesters are unhappy. "Even if the power plants are only placed on standby, we're against it," one says.

A Bitter Pill for the Greens to Swallow

Habeck's plan, though, is to do just that. The Isar 2 and Neckarwestheim nuclear power plants are scheduled to be shut down and taken offline by the end of the year, but the new plan calls for them to be placed on "operational reserve" until April 2023, ready in the event of an unspecified emergency. The plants, in other words, won't be kept operating as normal. Neither, though, will they be completely shut down as called for by a German law passed after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. That law calls for the phase out all atomic plants in the country by the end of 2022.

Habeck has come up with a different idea.

Decisive days are now dawning for the Greens. The anti-nuclear movement is at the core of the Green Party's identity and the most important element in the founding of the party. The fact that Habeck is now proposing to at least delay the nuclear phase-out is another of several impositions that his party has had to put up with in its first months in the government coalition.

In recent days, an even worse scenario for the Greens had been circulating – namely that the plants would be placed on long-term standby. Habeck didn't allow those fears to come true – and that has helped him noticeably, as conversations with members of parliament suggest. But will that be enough to keep the party calm even after the initial relief has worn off?

Will the Party Comply?

At the parliamentary group meeting on Monday afternoon, Habeck himself opens the session. He presents his plan before the debate begins.

Concerns in recent days had been widespread among Habeck's inner circle. For the first time in the first year of this government, which has been full of twists and turns, it didn't seem entirely clear whether the party would go along with a change of course.

Arms deliveries to war zones? Of course, you have to help Ukraine against the aggressor, members of the party thought. A discount on gasoline to help reduce energy costs? Fine, if German Finance Minister Christian Lindner of the fiscally conservative Free Democratic Party (FDP) blocked other relief measures. Firing up coal-fired power plants on reserve and building new terminals to process liquefied natural gas? Of course, if only to get through the next few winters.

What would the alternatives have been? Leave Ukraine to its destruction? Not pass any relief packages? Allow millions of private households to freeze or shut down factories?

Nuclear Power Is at the Heart of the Greens' Identity

However, the situation would be different for continued partial operations, because there are alternatives. The assumptions that have to be made for the partial extension of operations at Germany's final two nuclear power plants to make the difference between a blackout, a controlled shutdown in some areas (brownout), and normal operation are extreme. That's one reason things have been very tricky this time. But it isn't the decisive one.

Nuclear power feels like the last unbroken taboo of a party that has already largely brought its own beliefs into line with reality. But there's more behind the issue of nuclear power than just convictions or fears – it is also a question of identity, a sensitive one for politicians who have devoted much of their lives to the movement.

"I have fought for almost 50 years to phase out nuclear power. Now, just before the last ones go off the grid, I'm not going to let them steal my success," Michael Schroeren, the long-time spokesman for the Environment Ministry, recently tweeted.

The members of the Green Party from Lower Saxony have been the most vocally critical of the plan. In addition to facing an upcoming state election, the nuclear issue is central to the identity of party members in the state. Their history is closely linked to the protests against the so-called Castor transports of nuclear waste to an interim storage facility located in the town of Gorleben in the state. Lower Saxony is also the home of Jürgen Trittin, the former environment minister who pushed through Germany's first nuclear phase out in 2002 (it would later initially be overturned by the subsequent government led by then-Chancellor Angela Merkel) and is still an important voice in the parliamentary group.

Jürgen Trittin has spent much of his career pushing for a phaseout of nuclear power.

Jürgen Trittin has spent much of his career pushing for a phaseout of nuclear power.

Foto: Swen Pförtner / picture alliance/dpa

It takes tremendous strength and reflection to throw beliefs overboard. It is far, far harder to admit the possibility that the issue you have spent your entire political life fighting for was in vain and possibly even wrong.

There have to be extremely good reasons for doing so. And Habeck and his Economy Ministry have solid strategic political reasons for not pushing uncompromisingly for the final shutdown of the reactors.

What, supporters of extending limited operations asked in recent weeks, would happen if power outages really do occur somewhere in the new year? Were that to happen, the opposition, the FDP and the public would accuse the Greens of willfully causing the blackout for pure ideological reasons. And that, regardless whether it was based on fact or not.

The narrative would be that they are unreliable regional representatives, deluded fanatics and threats to the energy supply. It could also ground a Green Party that until now has been flying high.

A Pandora's Box

And for what? For fuel rods that are almost spent and will only be able to produce a limited amount of electricity? So that they stick with a final phaseout date that had been set by a previous government that the Greens weren't even a part of? So that the nuclear waste that is going to be generated anyway isn't delayed until a little bit later?

The other camp, barricaded itself a fortress of opposition, arguing that extending limited operations would only be the beginning. Doing so would require revisiting the nuclear phaseout law and, with it, a Pandora's box. Some feel that the logical consequence would be keeping the nuclear power plants open for a longer period.

According to participants in the parliamentary group meeting, members of the party from Lower Saxony pointed out the safety risks of continued operations. And that extending operations would jeopardize the social consensus on phasing out nuclear power.

Particularly tricky for Habeck is that prominent Greens, without whom he will be unable to secure the support of the broader party, are opposed to his plan. Until now, Habeck has been able to rely fully on the leadership of the parliamentary group and the party. But of the six people at the head of the Green Party, national party co-chair Ricarda Lang is likely the only one who would truly support him on partial continued operations.

The heads of the Greens' parliamentary group, Britta Hasselmann (left) and Katharina Dröge (right) are unlikely to stand in Habeck's way on the issue.

The heads of the Greens' parliamentary group, Britta Hasselmann (left) and Katharina Dröge (right) are unlikely to stand in Habeck's way on the issue.

Foto: Britta Pedersen / dpa

Parliamentary group leaders Britta Hasselmann and Katharina Dröge, who have so far removed all obstacles to the government, have been expressing their doubts about nuclear extensions at every opportunity. Party co-chair Omid Nouripour takes a similar view. And Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, who unlike Habeck is very well networked within the party, has never publicly ruled out the limited extension of operations, but she has sharply criticized any suggestion that Germany reopen nuclear plants in the longer term, calling it lunacy. At the very least, she has created the impression that she is less flexible on the issue than Habeck.

It is unlikely that they would incite an uprising in the parliamentary group against Habeck. The question is really: How passionately would they work to stop a movement in the party against Habeck if it were to materialize?

And how will they act when the decision is put to the vote at the party conference in October, where Habeck could possibly be pitted against Trittin?

Those waiting in the Bundestag on this late summer afternoon are provided with an inkling as the heat drives them out of the caucus room. Inside, the air conditioning is turned off, because the federal parliament is trying to save energy. And there are no drinks on the tables this time. The parliamentarians break into a sweat and rush outside to get a drink or some air.

It also provides the opportunity to ask them how they view the situation. And to watch them talk to each other. The longer the meeting lasts, the more relaxed they seem.

Members Seem Caught off Guard

There is plenty of criticism, to be sure. But Habeck has once again caught everyone off guard with this previously undiscussed variant. The deputies had clear positions on limited continued operations, on a lifetime extension. They had no positions on the idea of keeping two nuclear power plants on standby.

Much is still unclear, especially whether Habeck is tricking his own people, who were determined not to have limited operations of the nuclear plants extended. Or those political opponents who wanted to push it through at all costs.

For the moment, that doesn't seem so important politically. The leadership of the parliamentary group is signaling support, and similar signals can be heard from the parliamentary group's executive committee and the government cabinet. Even members of parliament who were previously uncertain say they can go along with it.

At first, the party seemed to be facing the agonizing choice of being seen as incapable of governing at the federal level or betraying its oldest principle. But another view has crystallized: Namely that the core identity of the party is perhaps no longer unmoving adherence to specific policy issues (anti-nuclear or environmental protection, for example), but a method of conducting politics - the recognition of reality and the attempt to shape it according to specific principles. This attitude seems to have prevailed yet again.

Nonetheless, the topic is likely to dominate the Green Party's annual conference in Bonn in mid-October. The Green Party executive board already has three motions on the table to reaffirm the phaseout of atomic energy in Germany. They bear titles such as "Nuclear Power – No Thanks!" and "Sticking to the Nuclear Phase-Out – No Lifetime Extension and No Limited Operations."

Who knows if anything will then flare up in the party. However, any insurgency is not expected to be incited by leading Greens.

Thus, on this evening, it looks as if the bitterest conflict over the future of nuclear power is breaking out not within the Green Party, but instead within the already often discordant governing coalition.

On Monday, the FDP's executive committee approved a paper calling for the temporary continued operation of Germany's three remaining nuclear power plants beyond Dec. 31. Regardless of the results of the stress test. And of Habeck's plan.

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