Opinion Germany Cripples Itself With Nuclear Angst

Germans are buying Geiger counters and the government has shut almost half the nuclear plants as a wave of angst has gripped this risk-averse nation in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. The fear is unwarranted and damaging, and Chancellor Angela Merkel is pandering to it to secure her political future.
"I am afraid" -- a German anti-nuclear campaigner in Potsdam on Monday.

"I am afraid" -- a German anti-nuclear campaigner in Potsdam on Monday.

Foto: Robert Schlesinger/ dpa

Sales of Geiger counters have gone through the roof in Germany in recent days, and people have been buying so many iodine pills that medical experts have warned of the health risks of taking them. It only makes sense, said the Federation of German Pharmacists, "if there is a radioactive cloud directly over Germany."

Judging by the near-panic with which Europe's largest nation is responding to the Fukushima incident, one might assume that a toxic cloud had already arrived.

The whole world is anxiously watching the video footage showing plumes of smoke rising from the stricken plant, and questions are being asked in most countries about the safety of nuclear power.

But the reaction has been strikingly angst-ridden in Germany, which is over 5,500 miles away from Japan. The Japanese, one could be forgiven for thinking, are facing their plight with a lot more stoicism than the Germans.

The fear is driven in part by the evident similarities between the two highly developed, industrial nations, both known for their technological prowess and rigorous safety standards. If it can happen in Japan, then it could certainly happen here, say Germans, who have a high level of respect for Japanese engineering.

Is Sushi Safe?

A number of German broadcasters and media organizations have been pulling their staff out of Tokyo for fear of nuclear radiation, while broadcasters from other nations are picking their way through the tsunami-hit wastelands of northeastern Japan, providing first-hand coverage of the tragedy.

The German Fish Information Center has reassured people that it's still safe to eat sushi. A children's book by author Gudrun Pausewang called "The Cloud," about a girl surviving in Germany after a massive nuclear accident, is back on the bestseller lists. It was first published in 1987, the year after Chernobyl.


Photo Gallery: Japan Earthquake Disaster in Pictures

Foto: REUTERS/ Kyodo

Conservative newspaper Die Welt declared in a commentary on Monday that Fukushima would have a political and psychological impact "as great as 9/11,"  the 2001 terrorist attack on New York and Washington that led to two major wars and the deaths of over 100,000 people in Iraq alone.

German commentators have proclaimed the end of nuclear power as a global source of energy -- even as China and India reaffirmed their commitment to invest heavily in new plants to satisfy their surging energy needs.

Merkel Pulls Plug on Seven Plants

Some 100,000 demonstrators took to the streets in 400 towns and cities across Germany on Monday demanding the closure of German reactors. Many waved banners reading "Fukushima is everywhere."

The public fear is so great that Chancellor Angela Merkel, intent on avoiding defeat for her party in three state elections this month, pulled the plug on Monday  on the most important policy of her second term in office, the extension of nuclear reactor lifetimes by an average of 12 years beyond the originally scheduled phase-out date of 2021.

Just 48 hours after the explosion at reactor No. 1 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant on Saturday, Merkel caved, ordering a three-month moratorium on the extension. The seven oldest of Germany's 17 power stations, the ones that went into operation before the end of 1980, will be shut down immediately pending a three-month safety review.

It is unclear how many of them will be reopened. The Neckarwestheim I plant, conveniently located in the state of Baden-Württemberg where Merkel's conservatives are battling to stay in power in an election on March 27, will be shut down for good, state governor Stefan Mappus, an ardent and vocal supporter of nuclear power until last Saturday, announced on Tuesday.

The longer lifetimes were a key part of the green energy revolution Merkel announced in 2010. Some of the reactors were meant to stay in operation until the 2030s to safeguard the supply of affordable electricity while Germany converted to renewable power generation.

Angst Halts Green Revolution

Merkel had the bold plan of making Germany 80 percent dependent on wind, biomass, solar and hydroelectric power by 2050. A tax on the nuclear plants was intended to help fund the huge costs of the transition.

That entire strategy has now been thrown into doubt, by angst. Germany is not in a seismic danger zone. Its earthquakes are either too small to be registered by anyone but bored geologists, or just big enough to knock over a precariously placed garden gnome. A tsunami has yet to happen.

The nuclear safety checks now underway will presumably go over old ground -- the resistance of reactor buildings to being hit with a passenger jets, the risk of terrorists taking over control rooms or the failure of cooling systems due to power outages.

Even if a new analysis found that Germany's reactors couldn't withstand a major earthquake, it would be economically impossible to shut them down immediately -- Europe's largest economy relies on nuclear power for over 20 percent of its energy requirements.

A Forest People

It all begs the question where the fear comes from.

The nation is security-conscious and risk-averse. This could partly be a psychological reaction to the upheaval of the 20th century, with two world wars, hyperinflation and its position as a front line state in the Cold War for four decades.

The constant threat of immediate annihilation drove a powerful pacifist and anti-nuclear movement and led to establishment of the Greens, one of the world's most successful environmental parties, in 1980.

Grim memories of the plume of radioactive fallout that drifted over much of Europe, including Germany, after the Chernobyl disaster doubtless also play a part.

Other theories delve deep into the Teutonic soul. The Germans are a forest nation -- inward-looking, shelter-seeking, with a tendency toward the parochial. People have a strong bond with their homes and with the environment. They aspire to the "Heile Welt," the perfect world, in which the risk of a nuclear meltdown has no place.

Merkel has pandered to irrational fears, sacrificing her energy policy to secure her political future.  A stronger leader would have told the nation to stop whining and get real, for its own sake.

SPIEGEL ONLINE editor David Crossland has reported as a journalist here for two decades.
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