by Rose-Anne Clermont
“Offshore drilling and nuclear power plants,” I wrote on my Facebook status. “Too much faith in technology or disregard for future generations?” This was the day after the first hydrogen explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant where the back-up cooling systems were crippled by the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in Japan last month. As more explosions followed, news trickled in, and confirmed that the world was facing another serious nuclear crisis - twenty-five years after Chernobyl.
“I live on a 33 acre farm with chickens, deer and a well,” wrote a former high school classmate. “In the event of a disaster, I could chop down trees for firewood, have food, water and heat. But I can’t expect other people to live the way I do.”
I pointed out that a nuclear meltdown would render her farm, the crops, and the animals completely contaminated with radiation and therefore useless. In Germany, about 1500 kilometers (932 miles) away and 25 years after the nuclear catastrophe in Chernobyl, we still can’t eat mushrooms or wild boar meat in some regions because of unsafe levels of radiation contamination. She insisted that nuclear energy is relatively safe, highlighting that the tsunami in Indonesia killed 230,000 people whereas the nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl, Ukraine killed fewer than 50 workers and 4,000 additional people from cancer - a World Health Organization figure disputed among Ukrainian doctors and environmentalists who cite cancer numbers as high as 700,000 to 900,000.
Another former schoolmate, now an aeronautical engineer, said his grandfather died from lung cancer from working in a coal-fired power plant. Indeed, coal-fired plants are highly toxic and responsible for up to 13,000 deaths per year in the United States, according to the American Lung Association. “What are the alternatives?” he challenged me.
In 2010 Germany produced 17 percent of its electricity from renewable sources compared to 6 percent in 2000. “How’s that for progress?” I typed. My classmate was intrigued but remarked that the immediate cost was huge. How would a working class family pay for expensive solar panels on their roof if they can’t even make ends meet, he asked?
In a thirty-comment Facebook thread the most common arguments for and against nuclear energy were touched upon. But as I made a case against nuclear power, I wondered if my logging in from Germany influenced my perspective? I was arguing much like a German would.When I moved here for the first time in 1998, I found environmental issues impossible to ignore. Public trash cans already had four separate compartments. I watched people in business suits ride their bikes to work. Plastic shopping bags at the grocery store were not free. Trash collection was a significant bill, and filling up my car cost three times as much as back home.
The Green Party had just been elected into the federal coalition government and would pass important legislation like The Renewable Energy Sources Act, which established feed-in tariffs requiring grid operators to pay a long-term premium price to any person or business that produces renewable electricity. This prompted a boom in green technology, jobs, and renewable energy production.
It’s no wonder, in an environmentally conscious place like Germany, that the reaction to Japan’s nuclear crisis took a central role in people’s lives. In cities all over Germany demonstrations with tens of thousands in attendance were organized swiftly. “Fukushima is Warning” was the slogan. Even the conservative government led by Angela Merkel, which has consistently backed nuclear power, did an about-face last month and shut down seven of Germany’s oldest 17 nuclear reactors, pending inspection during a three-month moratorium.
A recent survey conducted by the Forsa institute found that 63 percent of Germans want the government to shut down all nuclear power plants and that 80 percent have some degree of fear about nuclear power.
Many Germans have also started to switch their energy providers to go a non-nuclear route. 123energie has seen an increase of 40 percent in applications for clean energy since Fukushima.
“I think it’s good that people are talking about it,” says physicist Laura Hennemann,
a doctoral student at University of Tübingen. “But I wish people had more knowledge in the discussions. Atomic energy has lobbies but there are also anti-atomic lobbies that push their own agenda."
Probably the clearest sign of the German mistrust of nuclear power was reflected in the recent election in the state of Baden-Württemberg. As the situation in Fukushima worsened, this state of about 10.7 million people, which has had a conservative government for 58 years, elected its first Green Party governor.But the German anti-nuclear tradition predates The Green Party. “Nuclear fission was not meant for human beings to tamper with,” says Dr. Frank Baum, a biochemist who was active in an historical bi-national movement that blocked the construction of a nuclear power plant along the German border to Alsace, France in 1974.
“Back then, we made lists of arguments against nuclear power: the danger of earthquakes, terrorism, the long half life of radioactive waste and human error. Our arguments from then aren’t any different from what’s being discussed today. Our worst fears came true, first in Chernobyl and now in Fukushima. It’s horrible to have to be right.”
Baum and tens of thousands of families, students, teachers, farmers, scientists, hippies, winegrowers, liberals as well as conservatives took over the region with tractors, tents, and huts and camped out for over a year in the location intended for the power plant. Many were arrested, hosed down with water, and chased by police dogs.
“We printed several hundred thousand pamphlets informing people about the dangers of nuclear energy and distributed them to each house,” remembers Dr. Georg Löser, a physicist and long-time anti-nuclear activist in Baden and author of numerous articles on the subject. “The citizens were just as or even better informed than the civil servants and pro-nuclear politicians.”
My husband Georg was nine years old and attended the weekend protests with his parents. “The police tried everything to make us move,” he remembers. “They had tanks and water hoses. It looked like a war.”
The Baden-Alsace community was the only successful of several German anti-nuclear movements to prevent a power plant from being constructed. Today Germany gets 22 percent of its energy from nuclear power, but plans to phase it out completely by 2020 and aims to speed up its plan to obtain 30 percent of its energy from renewable sources by then.
But Fritz Varenholt, a manager at energy giant RWE (which recently sued the government for shutting down one of its nuclear plants), paints a much bleaker picture of the immediate absence of nuclear energy in Germany.
“If we haven’t built power lines and storage facilities in the coming years,” Varenholt tells the German newspaper Die Welt in a recent interview, “the shutdown of nuclear plants in southern Germany will lead to such an extreme under supply of energy that to avoid a blackout, companies and maybe even entire cities have to be turned off. If there is a blackout, it won’t help if the sun shines the next afternoon because photovoltaic roofs can’t start up energy after a blackout."
Yet despite the seven older nuclear power plants Merkel’s government recently took off the grid, Germany still exports more energy than it imports, as seen in a sample hour from April 4 energy trading figures highlighted by The Green Party’s parliamentary press office this week.
“More than half of the nuclear power stations could be closed right away,” says Löser, “the remaining ones within the next 3 to 5 years.” Löser believes there is not enough focus on cogeneration – mainly natural gas driven combined heat and power stations - which are highly efficient, clean, and can be decentralized with smaller heat and power stations in separate regions or parts of cities, without needing to connect new power lines.
Löser’s own house near Freiburg hasn’t been connected to an electricity or natural gas grid since 1987. His family of four gets its energy and heat from a photovoltaic as well as a micro combined heat and power system.
“Back then they told us the energy consumption in our community would be so great, we wouldn’t be able to cover our energy needs without nuclear power,” Baum remembers. “So far, almost forty years later, we’re still fine without it.”
About the author:
Rose-Anne Clermont studied at Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. She first moved to Germany in 1998 as a Fulbright scholar and has contributed to Spiegel Online, Tagesspiegel, International Herald Tribune and Die Zeit. Her book, Buschgirl, about her experiences as a black immigrant in Germany was recently published by C. Bertelsmann/Random House. She currently lives in Berlin. Visit her blog, Currents between Shores.