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Why Won’t Germany Accept Nuclear Power?

As the nuclear revival spreads across Europe, a strange pattern is emerging. Country after country is coming to the realization that past fears of nuclear power have been exaggerated and that its tremendous energy density is indispensable in providing power to an industrial society while limiting the waste of fossil fuels. France, the first to convert in the 1960s, is now 80 percent nuclear and leading a world revival. The French now have the cheapest electricity in Europe and the second-lowest carbon emissions (behind only Sweden, which is half nuclear). They also earn $3 billion a year in foreign exchange by exporting electricity to the more reluctant Italy and Germany. After a spirited national debate, Finland voted in 2003 to build a new reactor, now under construction at Olkiluoto. England and Holland are preparing to follow suit. Italy closed down all its reactors after Chernobyl but, now importing 80 percent of its electricity, has reversed course and is currently planning a new reactor.

Only one country now forms an exception to this pattern: Germany. In 2000, while in power, the Social Democrats, allied to the small but vocal Green Party, voted to close down the nation’s 20 reactors by 2020 — even though they provided Germany with one quarter of its electricity. On coming to power in 2005, Chancellor Angela Merkel began pointing out the obvious: Germany would find it hideously expensive — if not impossible — to replace its nuclear component. At best, the life of the existing fleet of reactors had to be extended. Political pressures from resurgent Greens have weighed heavily on her, however, and when Merkel finally put this extension into effect this month, she accompanied it with a brutal tax on reactors that makes them almost useless to their owners. The nation’s 17 remaining reactors must pay a $15-billion one-time levy to help balance the national budget and then contribute another $2.3 billion annually to a “research fund” that will supposedly groom wind, solar, and other “renewable” forms of energy to take the place of nuclear power when the 12-year extension expires. Even Merkel cannot say aloud that wind and solar will never provide more than a pittance of energy but talks about nuclear energy as a “bridge” to the renewable future. This week Germany’s four utility companies announced they may sell their reactors, since it is no longer profitable to operate them.

Even this has not been enough to satisfy the Greens. Now in control of the upper house of Parliament with their allies, the Social Democrats, the Greens have said they will veto Merkel’s “compromise” measure. Merkel in turn is trying to outmaneuver them by claiming that the 12-year extension does not repeal the 2000 law but only modifies it, so that the measure does not require legislative approval. The Greens have protested and this weekend their objections will spill out into the streets with a huge demonstration planned in Berlin. They say it is only the beginning and vow that anti-nuclear protests will soon engulf all of Germany, bringing a re-run of the 1960s and 1970s.

The looming battle poses an interesting paradox. By nature, the Germans are a frugal and industrious people whose hard-working manner has made them the economic engine of the European Union. Yet on the fringes, German culture seems to produce streaks of political radicalism that compel fringe groups to carry their protests to much greater extremes than in other countries. This pattern occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, when all of Europe was engulfed by student protests but only in Germany did this activism turn brutally violent with the emergence of the Red Army Faction and the Baader-Meinhof Group. (Oddly, the only other country where left-wing protests turned deadly was its former Axis ally, Italy, where the Red Brigades kidnapped and murdered former Prime Minister Aldo Moro.)

Why is it that in France, where economic insouciance often seems to reign, nuclear power can be so easily accepted, while in Germany, where the work ethic reigns supreme, nuclear power is once again about to be demonized?  Does the coming turmoil over nuclear energy in Germany constitute a residue of former left-wing extremism?

– William Tucker is editor-at-large of Nuclear Townhall, where a discussion of this question is currently taking place.

William Tucker — Mr. Tucker is author of Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America’s Energy Odyssey.


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