July 14, 2024

Memo From Berlin: Germans’ Deep Suspicions of Nuclear Power Reach a Political Tipping Point

No matter that the incipient nuclear catastrophe was about 5,500 miles away, or that Germany, unlike Japan, did not lie on known tectonic fault lines. On the streets of major cities, hundreds of thousands of protesters, casting events in Japan as a portent of what might happen here, turned out ahead of state elections to demand a halt to Germany’s own nuclear power program, the source of nearly a quarter of the nation’s electricity.

Those two intertwined phenomena — angst and electoral maneuvering — led to what seemed one of the most abrupt reversals of Angela Merkel’s years as German chancellor: On Monday, she abandoned plans laid only nine months earlier to extend the life of the country’s nuclear power stations and ordered instead that they be phased out by 2022.

The decision meant that, at Europe’s heart, the Continent’s economic powerhouse had committed itself far more radically than its neighbors to the east or west to replace nuclear power with renewable sources of energy like wind turbines — or at least, critics said, with nuclear-generated power imported from neighbors like France.

But the German move also raised a question whose answer seemed elusive: What is there in this land of 82 million people that has, over decades, bred an aversion to nuclear energy that seems unrivaled among its economic peers, defying its reputation for reasoned debate?

“Just as creationists attempt to ban the theory of evolution from the school books,” said a physicist, Peter Heller, in a Web posting that challenged the national nuclear orthodoxy, “it almost seems as if every factual and neutral explanation in Germany is now in the process of being deleted” from the nuclear debate.

Indeed, said Reinhard Wolf, a professor in Frankfurt, the debate is so passionate that “you are either with us or against us.”

“There is no middle ground,” Professor Wolf said.

The power of antinuclear sentiment has already redrawn the politics of survival for Mrs. Merkel. Recent regional elections in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg and in the northern city-state of Bremen have undermined her conservative Christian Democratic Union to the benefit of the antinuclear Green Party. The Greens’ showing was so strong it seemed that if national elections were held now, they would emerge again as kingmakers, as they were before Mrs. Merkel came to power in 2005.

Within days of that fundamental shift, her energy policy, once firmly based on extending the life of Germany’s nuclear plants, swung around in favor of closing the plants much sooner. As she said after the Fukushima crisis began, events in Japan changed “everything in Germany.”

When Mrs. Merkel on Monday announced her plans to phase out all of Germany’s 17 nuclear reactors, said Gerd Gigerenzer, director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development here, she courted the danger “that when a government reacts too quickly to an incident like Fukishima, it creates the impression that there is no real reason except winning votes.”

“The government has decided to listen to the anxiety of the people and go to the position where the opposition wants them to go,” Mr. Gigerenzer said in a telephone interview.

Some call the process Merkelism, defined by the columnist Roland Nelles in the weekly Der Spiegel as politics “based on two principles.”

“The first is that, if the people want it, it must be right,” Mr. Nelles wrote. “The second is that whatever is useful to the people must also be useful to the chancellor.”

That calculation seemed borne out by opinion surveys suggesting that around 70 percent of Germans believed that their chancellor was maneuvering for electoral advantage. The same proportion, significantly, said they were prepared to pay higher electricity bills in return for ending nuclear energy.

That again seemed to underscore the way the nuclear debate here draws such apocalyptic comparisons.

“What Sept. 11, 2001, meant for the vulnerability of the West,” the center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung said, for instance, the catastrophe in Japan on March 11, 2011, “will mean for the idea that nuclear power is controllable. That idea can no longer be supported.”

Of course, few modern German reflexes are completely free of what Professor Wolf in Frankfurt called “the German experience” of its Nazi past, which has made many suspicious of the industrialization of destructive forces, whether chemical or nuclear.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=8f91c3475c82c45b1b7dfcd7ccb1b536

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