Saturday's nuclear accident in Japan looks likely to lend new impetutus to the ongoing debate about the safety of nuclear power in Germany.
The first reaction of German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen was to assure the public that Germany would not be at risk if there was a meltdown in the Fukushima 1 plant, the scene of Saturday's explosion. "We assume that damage to our country can be ruled out," Röttgen told reporters on Saturday, explaining that the distance between Japan and Germany, plus the weather conditions and wind direction in the crisis area, meant that Germany was not in danger.
Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle left a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Hungary early to return to Berlin for discussions about the situation in Japan. German Chancellor Angela Merkel plans to hold a crisis meeting on Saturday evening with Westerwelle and Röttgen to discuss the consequences of the reactor accident. A government crisis task force has been set up in Berlin to address the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.
The German government is under pressure. Members of the governing coalition parties -- the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) -- fear that the accident will reignite a long-running debate in Germany about extending the operating lives of the country's nuclear plants. On Saturday, Environment Minister Röttgen, referring to the "current emergency situation" in Japan, criticized "political discussions" about the safety of nuclear power plants in Germany and the question of extending their operating lives. "I think this is totally out of place," the minister said.
Last October, Germany's parliament voted to approve the extension of the lifespans on 17 nuclear power plants in the country. The plants will remain online for an average of an additional 12 years each. Under the law, Germany's last nuclear power plant is now slated to be shut down in 2035.
Coincidentally, a large-scale protest against nuclear power was already planned for this Saturday in Germany. On Saturday afternoon, anti-nuclear activists intended to form a human chain from the nuclear plant in Neckarwestheim to the southwestern city of Stuttgart. Activists had been preparing for the event for a long time, but Saturday's events in Japan cast a whole new light on the protests. The organizers expect up to 40,000 participants from all over Germany. In two weeks, crunch state elections will be held in Baden-Württemberg, where Neckarwestheim and Stuttgart are located.
Green Party co-floor leader Jürgen Trittin told SPIEGEL ONLINE on Saturday that, although this was "no time for self-righteousness," it was a fact that there were nuclear plants in Germany that were vulnerable to the same kind of accident as that in Japan. "And the government has just extended the operating lives of exactly these plants," he said. He pointed out that the plant at Neckarwestheim was "not sufficiently protected" against a meltdown and was also located in an earthquake zone.
Trittin added that it would be impossible to contain the radioactivity within the plant if there was an accident at the Neckarwestheim facility. "That just shows the negligence of extending the operating lives of nuclear plants without properly thinking it through, as the current government has done," Trittin said, adding that a new debate over nuclear energy was inevitable.
During an interview on the radio station Deutschlandradio Kultur on Saturday morning, Trittin's co-floor leader, Renate Künast, said: "We are not the masters of nature; nature is the master of us."
'An End to Atomic Energy'
Meanwhile, former German environment minister Sigmar Gabriel, who heads the center-left, opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD), called for an "international re-evaluation of nuclear policies" following the catastrophe in Japan. "People can't just continue to go on as if the expansion of nuclear energy around the world is the correct and only path," he said. "The International Atomic Energy Agency promotes the construction of nuclear power plants in all parts of the earth, even in war and crisis regions," he added. "That needs to stop."
"We are once again learning that so-called meltdowns, the melting of the core that is considered the greatest possible accident, are not just a theoretical parameter that one can neglect," he said. "Rather, a meltdown is a real and concrete danger that has unimaginable risks for humanity. That's why we need to abandon atomic energy worldwide rather than increase the risks."
Gabriel said that in light of the humanitarian catastrophe in Japan, he was not seeking to beat the drum of triumphalism. But, he concluded, "for the SPD and also for me it has long been clear: The risks associated with nuclear energy cannot be justified and we must withdraw as quickly as possible." He also said he found it wrong to place more emphasis on a German domestic political debate over nuclear energy than the human suffering of thousands of people in Japan. "The most important thing now is to determine if we can help."
And Kurt Beck, the SPD governor of the western state of Rheinland-Palatinate, who is running for re-election in late March, called for Germany to abandon nuclear energy altogether. "I'm not trying to win any political capital from a catastrophe like this," he told the Leipziger Volkszeitung daily, "but it's my impression that having a risk like this probably makes every sensible person want very urgently to continue on the path toward abandoning uncontrollable nuclear energy."
Beck's comments were echoed by Natascha Kohnen, the general secretary of the SPD's state chapter in Bavaria. "Nowhere on the planet is there safe nuclear energy," she said. Although Kohnen echoed Beck's comment about not wanting to turn anxiety in Japan into political capital, she added that events like these "can't help but have political consequences" and that there "has to be an end to atomic energy." Ralf Stegner, the head of the SPD in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, called on Germany to abandon nuclear power as swiftly as possible and said that the tragedy in Japan obligated German politicians to make that a reality.
Klaus Ernst, the head of the Left Party, said that 100 percent protection against environmental catastrophes and large-scale accidents could not be found anywhere. He added that, when natural catastrophes occurred, nuclear power plants could lead to additional damage. Having plants in densely populated areas is tantamount to "permanently playing with fire," he said.
In the meantime, Michael Fuchs, an economics expert and deputy head of the CDU's parliamentary group, cautioned against having a new debate on nuclear energy in Germany. "It's not legitimate to draw conclusions about the use of nuclear energy in Germany from things that have happened in Japan," Fuchs told the newspaper Welt am Sonntag.
Fuchs said that it was too early to pass judgment on what really happened in the Japanese nuclear power plant and noted that Japan had completely different risks from Germany. "Since we don't have the same kind of earthquake dangers as there are in Japan," he said, "it would be downright foolish to exploit this case in relation to Germany."