Japan's Chernobyl Fukushima Marks the End of the Nuclear Era
Part 2: The 9/11 of the Nuclear Industry
It seems likely that politicians and scientists will take a much more skeptical view of nuclear energy from now on. This was evident in the agitated way German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), reacted when he heard about the explosion at a reactor at the other end of the world. On Saturday morning, Röttgen told his wife that this was "an event that changes everything." They felt reminded of Sept. 11, 2001, the day of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
A direct danger to Germany can be "practically ruled out," says Röttgen, adding that the most important thing now is to "express sympathy for Japan, establish clarity about the situation and offer help." Chancellor Merkel convened a crisis meeting on Saturday evening.
Röttgen reacted with irritation to the new nuclear debate that was already taking shape in Germany over the weekend. "I feel that this is uncalled for in this situation, and that it's really the wrong time," he said. Röttgen himself was unwilling to comment on the consequences for the planned extension of the life spans of nuclear power plants in Germany, calling it "a political discussion for another time."
The question of how long Germany's nuclear power plants should remain online has been the subject of a heated political debate in recent years. Last October, Germany's parliament approved an extension of the lifespans of the country's 17 nuclear power plants, effectively overturning a planned phase-out of nuclear power agreed on under the government of Merkel's predecessor, Gerhard Schröder. Under the new law, the plants will remain online for an average of an additional 12 years each, meaning Germany's last nuclear power plant is now slated to be shut down in 2035, rather than the 2021 deadline foreseen by the Schröder administration.
The law could still be overturned, however: The five German states controlled by the opposition center-left Social Democrats recently filed a complaint with the German Constitutional Court against the extension of the plants' operating lives.
Campaigning on an Anti-Nuclear Platform
The Greens, of course, disagree with Röttgen's assertion that this is not the time to talk about nuclear energy in Germany. They see the Japanese nuclear disaster as an opportunity to discuss one of their traditional core issues with new vehemence. Key elections are about to take place in the southwestern states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate. Recently, the Green Party has not been doing so well in the polls. Now it will campaign on an anti-nuclear platform, particularly as Baden-Württemberg Governor Stefan Mappus (CDU) is a strong supporter of nuclear power. Thomas Strobl, the CDU's general secretary in the state, is already planning ahead, saying: "We should not conduct an election campaign at the expense of people in Japan."
The Greens are unimpressed by such rhetoric. Jürgen Trittin, the former German environment minister and current Green Party co-floor leader in the Bundestag, feels validated in his skepticism about nuclear power. "Even a modern, technologically advanced country like Japan is not immune to the risks of a meltdown. The same applies to Germany, where we are even extending the life spans of especially unsafe nuclear reactors like Neckarwestheim," says Trittin. He points out that the accident in Japan also shows that extending life spans is irresponsible.
Renate Künast, who shares the chairmanship of the Green Party parliamentary group with Trittin, adds: "Nuclear power plants should not be located in metropolitan areas, and certainly not in earthquake zones. This also applies to Germany. Neckarwestheim, for example, is not quakeproof."
Volker Kauder, parliamentary floor leader in the Bundestag for the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), has already made it clear that the two parties will continue to support extending plant life spans, despite the Fukushima accident. Deputy floor leader Michael Fuchs agrees: "Japan has completely different tectonic conditions from Germany. The accident there does not cast doubt on the extension of life spans for nuclear power plants here."
Key Issue in Germany
This is an old line of reasoning, but whether it can be sustained is questionable. Until now, the industry, the CDU/CSU and the FDP have insisted that German nuclear power plants were safe and that Germany could rely on its engineers. But the same thing was always equally true of Japan. Its engineers have the reputation of being as good as Germany's when it comes to building everything from automobiles to power plants. So if the Japanese cannot be relied upon to build reactors that can operate safely in their environment, what does this say about the Germans?
Hardly any other issue has had as strong an impact on the history of postwar Germany as nuclear power. And hardly any other country reacts with as much sensitivity to the risks of nuclear contamination. This is one of the reasons Germans founded an anti-nuclear party, the Green Party, which has since become firmly rooted in the political system.
Germany also has its own geography of opposition to nuclear power, including places such as Brokdorf, Kalkar, Wackersdorf and Gorleben, whose names have become symbols of the debate. German civil society has waged major battles against nuclear power, usually with words but sometimes with clubs, stones, water cannon and Molotov cocktails.
Resistance has even become a way of life for some people, like the activists who established the short-lived "Free Republic of Wendland" in 1980 near a planned nuclear waste repository in Gorleben in northern Germany. The movement has even coined a verb, "schottern," which refers to acts of sabotage against nuclear waste transports.
New Lease on Life for Anti-Nuclear Movement
When the Green Party formed a coalition government with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) in 1998, it made a nuclear phase-out one of its top priorities, with the goal of shutting down all reactors by 2021. But when the CDU/CSU/FDP coalition came into power in 2009, it began discussing the extension of plants' life spans. The government feared an electricity shortfall if reactors were shut down and the burden shifted to renewable energy sources. Besides, politicians in the new government were thrilled to be able to reverse the hated legislation the SPD/Green Party had enacted before leaving office.
But it was precisely this about-face that generated new support for the anti-nuclear movement. Some 120,000 people took part in a human chain between the Brunsbüttel and Krümmel nuclear power plants near Hamburg. Old concerns about the supposed uncontrollability of this energy source had resurfaced.
The CDU/CSU was divided over the issue. A large segment of the parliamentary group headed by Volker Kauder favored extending life spans by 15 or more years, while Environment Minister Röttgen wanted to stop at 10. The two camps agreed on 12 years. The government decided to push through the law without involving the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, because the coalition parties lack a majority there. (Normally the Bundesrat would have to approve any law that affects the competencies of Germany's 16 states.) Germany's Federal Constitutional Court is now expected to examine whether the government's approach is compatible with the German constitution. This process, too, could be reinvigorated in response to pressure generated by the disaster in Japan.
In the past, a majority of Germans could be quickly mobilized against nuclear power whenever there was a reason to do so. Fukushima is a very significant reason, and it will make a deep impression on the German debate. The pro-nuclear parties, the CDU, CSU and FDP, will have to come up with new arguments to justify extending reactor life spans. The Greens could get a new boost, and the SPD, which once supported nuclear power but then reversed its policy, could very well find itself marginalized in a debate in which it lacks strong credentials.
Chancellor Merkel has also shown herself to be somewhat indecisive on this issue, as she has been with many other debates. As a physicist, she has a natural confidence in nuclear science and, therefore, in the nuclear industry. But as a politician she knows that supporting nuclear power is an unpopular position in Germany. As a result, she has kept a low profile and, with an eye to the strong opposition within the population, cautiously described nuclear power as a "bridge technology" to a future based on renewable energy, a technology that is acceptable for now but which makes little sense in the long term.
- Part 1: Fukushima Marks the End of the Nuclear Era
- Part 2: The 9/11 of the Nuclear Industry
- Part 3: Countdown to a Nuclear Disaster
- Part 4: Global Renaissance of Nuclear Power under Threat