by Rose-Anne Clermont
A version of the following article was originally published April 8, 2011. Last month, German parliament approved plans to shut down the nation’s nuclear plants by 2022, becoming the first industrialized nation to abandon atomic energy. The following article has been updated accordingly. – Ed.
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.
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 in March and shut down seven of Germany’s oldest 17 nuclear reactors, pending inspection during a three-month moratorium. On June 30 German lawmakers approved the plan drafted by the Merkel Government to make the shut down’s permanent and to close Germany’s remaining nuclear reactors by the end of 2022.
A March 14 survey conducted by the forsa Institute for Social Research and Statistical Analysis 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 already 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 aims to speed up its plan to obtain at least 35 percent of its energy from water, wind, sun, or biogas by 2020.
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 told the German newspaper Die Welt, “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 has already taken 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.
“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.
Germany is so far the only country that plans to completely phase out nuclear power. While the events at Fukushima forced many nations to re-examine their nuclear policies, none, including Japan, have considered leaving nuclear energy entirely.
“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.