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Katie Engelhart

Katie Engelhart

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Political Fallout: Will Germany Go Nuclear-Free?

Posted: 03/28/11 04:15 PM ET

Nuclear energy is dead -- long live nuclear energy!

Nuclear power in Germany is its death throes. Across the rest of Europe, it faces possible decline.

Threats of atomic catastrophe in Japan have fueled a fresh outbreak of hysteria in Germany: the world's fifth-largest economy. Iodide pills, said to protect the thyroid from high-level radiation, are flying off shelves across the country--and older Germans are dusting off decades-old tales about that spring in 1986, when a radioactive plume from the Chernobyl meltdown drifted over German cities and towns.

Earlier this month, 60,000 anti-nuclear demonstrators gathered in Stuttgart to form a 27-mile-long human chain, stretching out to a nearby nuclear facility. In the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, the Green Party--waxing philosophical on the urgent need for alternative energy sources--doubled its electoral base in last week's state elections.

Angela Merkel, German Chancellor (formerly, a trained physicist and longstanding nuclear industry-backer) is listening.

Last week, Merkel came down hard, putting a moratorium on her own government's year-old plan to extend the life of Germany's nuclear power plants. Seven of the country's oldest plants will be immediately taken offline.

The move is being hailed as "a stunning volte-face," a complete "U-turn on nuclear energy." Just last year, Merkel's government voted to extend Germany's nuclear program by at least 12 years. A "revolution," Merkel called it: one inspired by need, but also by a growing appreciation for the perks of nuclear power.

A global 'nuclear renaissance,' it seemed, was in full bloom. And Germany was jumping on the bandwagon.

But the disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility has cut the renaissance short.

Germany could well become the first major industrial power to abandon nuclear energy entirely: likely in the next 10-15 years. But others may follow suit. In an interview last week, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called events in Japan the September 11th of nuclear power. "Some events," he said, "represent such a turning point that afterwards nothing is the same."

That this is happening in Germany--the country where, in 1938, scientists bombarded uranium atoms with neutrons and discovered nuclear fission--is no coincidence.

Germany's relationship to 'nuclear' is fraught with tension. Says newsmagazine Der Spiegel, "Hardly any other issue has had as strong an impact on the history of postwar Germany as nuclear power."

Recent events in Japan have only stirred the pot.

"People in Germany pick their political parties based on what they believe about nuclear power," says Nikki Shure, a 25-year-old American living in Berlin. "People in the United States just can't understand it."

It was in the race to gain an upper hand in World War II that nuclear science was born. After the energy-releasing power of nuclear fission was discovered, scientists in Germany and the US scrambled to put the new research to military use: in the form of an atomic bomb. The US Manhattan Project was inspired by fears that Germany would beat America to the atomic punch. In Germany, the equivalent project-- Uranverein (Uranium Club)--was tied inextricably to the aims of Adolf Hitler's strong-armed security squad, the SS.

(Once, the German physicist Werner Heisenberg got into some trouble with Nazi authorities. His research was threatened. Luckily for him, Heisenberg's mother was friendly with SS leader Heinrich Himmler's mother. The mommies corresponded and smoothed things out. Heisenberg went back to work on his bomb.)

As it turns out, the Nazis weren't quite as speedy as the Americans had imagined. Still, the threat of a German nuke largely pushed forward American research.

After the war, with Germany divided between the four victorious Allies, the United States and the Soviet Union scrambled to scoop up as many German physicists as they could manage. Under US Operation Alsos, Operation Epsilon, and the perhaps less aptly-named Operation Paperclip, Americans lured German scientists overseas--sometimes creating fake employment papers to get around US President Truman's pesky new order, which forbade Americans from hiring Nazi Party members and supporters.

Soviet authorities did the same, often forcing German physicists into the Eastern zone.

And so, in the blink of eye, occupied Germany became the world's new Cold War nuclear battlefield.

Germans weren't happy. In the 50s, the Kampf dem Atomtod (Struggle against Atomic Death) protest movement emerged. In the late 70s, protest kicked off again when NATO decided to deploy intermediate-range missiles in Europe.

Take all this fear about nuclear weapons. Throw in the 1973 OPEC oil crisis and growing concern about energy supplies--also Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. And then add something new to the mix: intense concern about environmental degradation--particularly in Soviet-controlled East Germany.

Enter Die Grünen: The Greens, now one of the most important Green parties in the world. By 1979, a whopping 50,000 local environmental societies had taken root in Germany. Die Grünen united these societies under a broad political umbrella, presenting itself as Germany's sole anti-nuclear savior.

But this should give us pause: because nuclear energy is not the same as atomic bombs.

In Germany, the two things became hopelessly muddled.

Take the October 1979 meeting between Green Party leaders and the German Association of Conscientious Objectors at a conference on "Ecology and Peace" in Kassel. The former was against nuclear energy. The latter against war, and its many weapons: including nuclear bombs. In 1980, the two groups came together to protest both military and non-military uses of nuclear power.

In some ways, the two anti-nuclear movements have never been separated.

In the United States, nuclear energy is seen by many as a path towards greater independence. (Forget those troublesome Russians and their abundant natural gas!) But that's not how people see it in Germany. In Germany, nuclear power was, for decades, a symbol of the country's lack of control over foreign policy and security. Throughout the Cold War, many Germans believed they were living under the shadow of nuclear annihilation. So it's not surprising that the word 'nuclear' makes Germans sensitive.

Events in Japan have excited old atomic anxieties.

Now there's the fallout.

Merkel's government has been forced to backtrack. And while her nuclear moratorium is only slated to last three month, it might be politically unfeasible to put plants back into use after they have been taken offline.

Japan has been a "catastrophe of apocalyptic dimensions," Merkel has said. "The situation after the moratorium will be a different one than the situation before the moratorium."

It's also likely that the political climate will prevent Germany (and others) from building new nuclear facilities.

And here's the thing: Germany hasn't built a nuclear plant since Chernobyl. (Instead, it pours billions into aging structures.) So as anti-nuclear groups, motivated by fears about nuclear safety, fight against nuclear power, the short-term result will be that countries like Germany must put faith in decades-old facilities--instead of building newer, safer ones.

(The US, which hasn't built a nuclear plant since the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979, is taking the opposite approach. President Barack Obama recently stressed his commitment to constructing new nuclear reactors.)

This might not bode well for Germany.

As the Germany business daily Handelsblatt wrote, "With her sudden 'moratorium,' Merkel has driven into a dead end at full speed."

What are the options? There's natural gas. But that comes largely from Russia. Germany is currently the biggest customer of Russia's state natural gas company, Gazprom. And German leaders have been expressing concern about their dependency on the Russian state. Renewable energy technologies are out there. But they are often prohibitively expensive. The government estimates that it will take $28 billion/year to transition to those new energy sources. $107 billion will be needed just for offshore wind farms.

And then there's the issue of time. Merkel didn't think her country could make it without nuclear last September. And nothing has changed since then. She proposed a nuclear extension as a way to buy time.

Time's up.

What's a country to do?

There's always Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk's advice, issued last week in response to a German call for Poland to cancel the construction of two new nuclear plants:

"We can't succumb to hysteria about it."

Germany might just be one country succumbing to post-Japan nuclear hysteria. But other European countries seem ready to follow.

Switzerland has suspended approval for new nuclear plants.

Italy has placed a one-year moratorium on nuclear expansion.

France, which meets 80% of its current electricity needs with nuclear reactors, is seeing its "nuclear love affair star[t] to cool."

Anti-nuclear sentiment is stewing in Sweden. And it is up in Britain.

Austria's Chancellor is calling for a European "exit strategy" from nuclear power.

Protests against nuclear energy have spread across Spain.

The EU's energy commission is warning, "there is talk of an apocalypse."

Europe, wrote the Czech business daily Hospodáské noviny has become "the world champion of hysteria around nuclear power."

But even in the United States, fewer people support nuclear energy now than just after Three Mile Island.

When the German Green movement began to pick up steam in the 70s, environmental activists pushed the idea that Germany--with its long, troubled relationship with nuclear power--had a historic duty to lead the anti-nuclear cause.

Today German politicians are picking up where those activists left off, making very vocal threats to become the first leading economy to go nuclear free.

The point is that no matter how enthused leaders are about prospects for alternative energy, a hasty rush away from nuclear power could be catastrophic.

Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station is not 1945 Hiroshima.

And any move away from the atomic energy option, if it does occur, should be based on present-day science--not a historical conflation of all things 'nuclear,' inspired by the results, however tragic, of an earthquake and a tsunami halfway around the world.