In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster a year ago, Germany closed some of its nuclear power plants. Some have since reopened, but others never will.
The German government surprised Europe by announcing the closure of its nuclear power program a year ago this week, immediately after the Fukushima disaster. Some have since reopened, but others never will. They all will be closed and permanently retired by 2022.
This seemed to many of us in the energy field like a rash decision, but it was not. In my conversations around Berlin this week, it has become clear that this was not a simple, snap decision in response to the Japanese tragedy. Anti-nuclear sentiment has a long history and broad support across society.
That consensus against nuclear power has its roots in the Green Party. The Greens emerged from the rebellious 1968 generation. In the U.S. we think of a green party as solely an environmental movement; that’s a big part of the German green movement, but certainly not the only part. The early greens consciously rejected what they perceived as the ideals of both sides of the Iron Curtain that divided their country. They were both anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian.
Meanwhile, from the 1950s through the 1970s, nuclear power was being promoted on both sides of the Wall as the solution to all energy problems. The founders of the green movement dissented from both sides; nuclear was seen as militarist, because of its association with nuclear weapons; consumerist, because it promoted enhanced use of energy; and authoritarian because it promoted a centralized structure of power. When, after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, it became clear that nuclear power was also dangerous, opposition was cemented.
Since the 1960s and ’70s, the Greens have matured as a political party and moderated some of their views in order to gain power. Today, they can be counted on for about 15-20% of the national vote,and they can win some local elections. But, their core belief against nuclear power has not moderated. On the contrary, they have largely convinced the rest of the country with their arguments. Even before Fukushima, nuclear power was opposed by more than 80% of the public.
In the early ’00s, during the Schroeder administration — the first in which the Greens held power — an agreement was made with the utility companies that they would shut down all nuclear power plants by 2022. This was calculated as long enough to pay off all the investment, plus depreciation of the nuclear plants. But, when the conservative government under Merkel came to power, that agreement was suspended — an unpopular decision.
The events a year ago in Fukushima gave Merkel’s coalition government the opportunity it needed to save face while walking away from their decision. Although it may have seemed sudden that Germany was suspending its nuclear power, it should not have been. It is almost enough to say now that to be anti-nuclear is part of being German.
That does not make it right, though. I am not convinced by their anti-nuclear arguments, but this story shows how decisions and feelings from 40 years ago rebound until today. At that time, their arguments may have made sense, but I believe that addressing the climate and health effects of coal and oil use should be a higher priority than shutting down a largely safe source of carbon-free energy.
When asked about it, the Greens I met with this week in Germany will say that it is not a contradiction to be both in favor of climate action and anti-nuclear. “We will do both” they say. They point out that even before Fukushima, more of their electricity came from renewables than from nuclear. But that is a cop-out and does not acknowledge that political choices are a matter of setting priorities. Their actions show that they are more anti-nuclear than pro-climate action, and that is unfortunate.
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