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.
A Moratorium Is Announced
Merkel spent Sunday at home, watching the news about Japan on television, surfing the net and spending a lot of time on the phone. In an early evening interview with Ulrich Deppendorf, a journalist with the ARD television network, she was still sticking to her old position. "I see no sign today that our nuclear power plants are unsafe, otherwise I would be bound by my oath of office to shut them down immediately," Merkel said.
But it wasn't long before that position was abandoned. At a coalition meeting in the Chancellery at 9 p.m., the participants decided to delay plans to extend reactor life spans. However, the idea of a moratorium was to remain a secret until Tuesday, when Merkel planned to secure the support of CDU and CSU state governors. A conservative cabinet member would later characterize her decision as a "political panic reaction."
While the situation continued to escalate at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, the CDU's executive committee convened on Monday morning. Environment Minister Röttgen got right to the point and repeated his old call for a rapid phase-out of nuclear power, warning that the conservatives could face their own "tsunami" if they didn't send a clear message now. Merkel disagreed, as did the conservatives' floor leader Volker Kauder and Volker Bouffier, governor of the western state of Hesse.
Then Merkel received a message that Vice Chancellor Westerwelle had already divulged the basic elements of the moratorium plan. She was furious, as she had intended to announce the idea after her meeting with the governors on Tuesday. Now she was forced to present the plan to the executive committee.
A few members were skeptical. European Union Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger questioned whether the nuclear about-face would be legally tenable. Environment Ministry officials had proposed using an emergency clause of German's Atomic Energy Act to justify the moratorium. "What legal basis do you intend to use?" Oettinger asked. "If there is no plaintiff, there is no judge," the chancellor replied, quoting a German saying that means not everything needs to be strictly aboveboard provided nobody complains.
Merkel contacted a number of CEOs of the major electric utilities to ask whether each of them might be prepared to shut down one of their reactors, at least temporarily. This would have brought the total number of reactors being shut down to four or five. The responses were evasive.
An unusual dynamic developed in the chancellor's Tuesday morning meeting with the governors of the states which are home to nuclear power plants. Suddenly they all wanted to get rid of their old reactors. First Baden-Württemberg Governor Mappus proposed shutting down the Neckarwestheim 1 reactor, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Stuttgart. Next, Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer offered up the Isar 1 plant in southeastern Bavaria, followed by Hessian Governor Volker Bouffier. As a result of their enthusiasm, the four or five nuclear power plants Merkel had initially envisioned shutting down suddenly turned into seven.
At the ensuing press conference, Merkel said that the government wanted to "accelerate" the transition to renewable energies, hoping that this would sound like a well thought-out plan and part of a consistent policy. In truth, it was a hastily devised, poorly considered plan that lacked an overall strategy.
It was now up to Environment Minister Röttgen, the man most likely to profit from the administration's about-face, to deliver the plan. At a key nuclear summit at the Chancellery last September, Röttgen's proposals had failed miserably. He had wanted to see reactor operating lives extended by a maximum of six years. He also wanted to introduce a requirement that all nuclear power plants be protected against possible plane crashes. But such protection would be too expensive, argued the chancellor and the energy companies. In the end, the administration approved extending reactor life spans by an average of 12 years.
After Fukushima, the environment minister is now letting the rest of the administration know how wrong they were. "He sees this as a second round," says someone who attended the meeting.
The session had hardly ended before Röttgen had assembled two teams at his ministry at Alexanderplatz in Berlin. One group, headed by Jürgen Becker, a senior ministry official, was formed to address the accelerated expansion of renewable sources of energy. The other team, headed by Gerald Hennenhöfer, head of the ministry's reactor safety division, will be working on speeding up the nuclear phase-out.
Instead of working primarily with the industry, Röttgen plans to work toward a social consensus by involving the unions, churches and environmental organizations. The minister also hopes to amend the Atomic Energy Act to allow for rapid shut-downs.
The Second Phase-Out
If Röttgen has his way, several of the older reactors that are either already out of commission or scheduled to be shut down for inspections within the next three months will be taken permanently offline. The remaining reactors would be shut down by the early 2020s. Röttgen also wants to impose numerous "retrofitting requirements" on German nuclear reactors, as an Environment Ministry document indicates. The measures, all designed to improve reactor safety, include protected bunkers for emergency control rooms, new cooling systems and improved protections against hydrogen gas explosions.
Billions of investments that would immediately make nuclear power unprofitable in Germany are up for debate. "There are historic moments that you have to seize if you want to achieve something," say officials at his ministry. Representatives of the nuclear industry, on the other hand, call it a "death blow."
At the same time, Röttgen wants to unveil a plan on Tuesday that will outline how green energy can quickly replace nuclear energy. The strategy could become the most far-reaching government intervention in the energy market in decades. Röttgen's ministry officials are preparing an incentive program for new power lines. They also want to provide more federal money to retrofit buildings in more energy-efficient ways, subsidize investments in battery technology and set priorities for new energy investments. The plans would limit the ability of citizens to take legal action against new power lines and facilitate the construction of underground carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) facilities, thereby removing two obstacles that have been hampering Germany's attempts to make the transition to renewable energies and cut its CO2 emissions.
Rushing to Change Course
The message is unambiguous: As of now, the Merkel cabinet is competing with the SPD and the Green Party over who can phase out nuclear energy quickest. No administration has ever rushed quite as precipitously into changing the country's energy policy.
This hasty approach has led to missteps. For example, Chancellor Merkel said initially that the Atomic Energy Act would be suspended. But then it occurred to her that this would require parliamentary approval. And at first the government believed that the moratorium would not cost it any money. But then lawyers pointed out that the administration could find itself paying damages to companies if they took legal action against its directive.
The weakest point is the section of the law that Röttgen's nuclear strategists have used as a basis for their new direction. Under Section 19 of the Atomic Energy Act, the government can shut down nuclear power plants, permanently or temporarily, if they pose a "threat to life, health or property."
But is this the case? After all, the coalition insisted only recently that the very same plants were safe. Even officials at the Environment Ministry have their doubts. "We are interpreting the Atomic Energy Act very broadly here," said one source in the ministry.
There is growing concern that the energy industry could push for financial compensation. Shutting down the reactors will cost the industry about €500 million ($705 million). As a result, the government's announcement promptly triggered a bluffing game. In a March 16 letter to the states with nuclear power plants, Gerald Hennenhöfer, the Energy Ministry official who is Röttgen's chief strategist, wrote that he wanted to "ask" them to cite the controversial Section 19 of the nuclear law as justification for the temporary plant shutdowns. The states had anticipated a hard-line directive, so much so that David McAllister, governor of the northern state of Lower Saxony, sensed a trap in the unusually polite request. He suspected that the federal government was trying to saddle the states with the potential costs that could result.
Last Thursday, McAllister voiced his concern to Chancellery head Pofalla, who promised him that the federal government would not abandon his state if problems arose. In the end, Lower Saxony agreed to play along with the administration's plan. In return, McAllister expects Merkel at a meeting next week to make a stronger financial commitment to helping his state clean up its Asse nuclear waste storage facility and for the costs of transporting nuclear waste to the planned long-term repository at Gorleben.
Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU), who already faces lost revenue as a result of the accelerated phase-out, will be the one footing the bill. If reactors are permanently shut down, the government stands to lose about a fifth of its revenues from a tax on nuclear fuel rods, say CDU financial policy experts. Ironically, a program to retrofit buildings to reduce their CO2 emissions could also be in jeopardy. Some €500 million, or about half of this year's budget for the program, comes from a special Energy and Climate Fund, which is paid for by the energy companies.
Plan Has Many Critics
Not surprisingly, the new phase-out plan has plenty of critics within the CDU/CSU parliamentary group. Floor leader Volker Kauder is trying to reassure his troops by saying that everything could be different three months from now. "At this point, we can't predict how the moratorium will turn out," he says. And former CSU leader Erwin Huber warns: "The CDU/CSU shouldn't act as if the energy policy it has promoted for decades were suddenly obsolete."
The mood was even more heated within the FDP parliamentary group last Tuesday. The chancellor had intended to present her new strategy for saving the euro, but the meeting was dominated by the nuclear debate instead. Many members of parliament felt, once again, that the administration was presenting them with a fait accompli. The immediate shutdown of the seven reactors "cannot be done without an overall economic strategy," says Berlin representative Martin Lindner. Economics Minister Rainer Brüderle revealed that he shared the reservations of his fellow FDP members, noting that the current "hysterical" reaction is typically German. No other country, Brüderle said, had reached decisions on the nuclear issue quite as suddenly as Germany.
Other former nuclear proponents, on the other hand, are coming to terms with the new situation. Georg Nüsslein, the economic policy spokesman of the CSU group in the Bundestag, represents a district that is home to the Gundremmingen nuclear power plant. He has also defended the plant, but now he says: "There's no point in beating a dead horse." And although some of his fellow CSU members want to continue riding that dead horse, says Nüßlein, "the question now is when and how the funeral will take place."
Opinions differ widely within the coalition, and not even the chancellor knows how to shape all of this into a consistent course of action. There is a risk that her U-turn will prove to be an overly hasty reaction -- legally, financially and politically.
Tensions between the SPD and the Green Party
The nuclear phase-out was never a cause championed by politicians on the right. In fact, it was a core project for the first SPD-Green Party government (1998-2002) under former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. To this day, both Social Democrats and environmental activists celebrate wresting an end date for nuclear energy out of the electric utilities as one of their greatest successes.
It is understandable that the two parties are now trying to jump on the current phase-out bandwagon. The message coming from their party leaderships is that on March 27, voters in Baden-Württemberg will not only be electing a new state government, but will also mark the beginning of a radical shift in German energy policy -- a return to the end of nuclear energy.
To win that election, the SPD and the Greens will need the support of middle-class voters. And in the opinion of analysts at their respective headquarters, these voters are not fond of the I-told-you-so approach, especially not in the aftermath of a massive catastrophe. For this reason, the SPD and Green Party are trying not to overdo it.
Voice of Reason
Last week, the Greens were clearly making an effort not to appear too triumphant. Co-floor leader Jürgen Tritten made a point of looking statesmanlike in the Bundestag, saying that the many new power lines that will become necessary will also make things "uncomfortable" for the Greens. The behind-the-scenes message is that the Greens want to portray themselves as the "voice of reason." After being in the doldrums for so long, their approval ratings are rising once again, according to recent opinion polls. The Green Party leadership has shown that keeping a low profile is the most credible approach to the current crisis.
Hans Christian Markert, a member of the North Rhine-Westphalia state parliament, was to learn this lesson the hard way. Last Thursday Markert, the environmental policy spokesman for the Green Party parliamentary group, emailed a nine-point plan for an accelerated nuclear phase-out to Berlin that was even more radical than the old SPD/Green Party plan.
Markert's plan clearly went too far for the national leadership, whose current proposal, which will be presented at a mini party convention in Mainz this weekend, is significantly vaguer. Under that plan, the Greens advocate a nuclear phase-out by 2017. But they say they would only "aim" for that deadline, which would depend on sufficient alternative energy sources being available by then.
The new political landscape is also not a source of unadulterated joy for the SPD. Social Democrats are plagued by a well-founded fear that voters could end up choosing the original environmental party, namely the Greens. As a result, the SPD sees itself forced to make its point as stridently as possible. "The government has intentionally destroyed the energy consensus that the SPD and Green Party had established in Germany," says Matthias Machnig (SPD), economics minister in the eastern state of Thuringia. "The government would be well advised to return to this energy consensus, so that the last nuclear power plant will be shut down by no later than 2021."
Paradoxically, the vocal nuclear debate of the past week could lead to a new political consensus, with the SPD/Green Party phase-out law as a line of compromise. Fear of the atom could also pave the way for a greener energy future, with more wind turbines and new electricity grids -- not to mention higher electricity prices.
It still isn't clear whether Germans are willing to accept the consequences of an accelerated nuclear phase-out. It is highly likely, however, that many other Europeans are not.
Last week, when the chancellor requested placing the subject of nuclear power on the agenda on this week's European summit in Brussels, the French and British representatives voiced reservations. "France underscored the authority of the member states to choose their own energy mix," read a wire report from the permanent representation of Germany to the EU in Brussels.
There was apparently even greater resistance from London. Britain, according to the report, had warned against "overly hasty political action."
REPORTED BY RALF BESTE, FRANK DOHMEN, MARKUS FELDENKIRCHEN, MICHAEL FRÖHLINGSDORF, CHRISTOPH HICKMANN, SIMONE KAISER, PETER MÜLLER, RENÉ PFISTER, CHRISTINA SCHMIDT, CHRISTIAN SCHWÄGERL, MERLIND THEILE, STEFFEN WINTER