It’s been tried before, but this time Germany means it: In about a decade, the world’s fourth-largest industrial nation will have to get by without atomic energy, following parliament’s approval of the government’s nuclear phase-out plans on Thursday. German commentators agree there is no going back.
Thursday’s vote by German lawmakers to approve the government’s plan to shut down the country’s nuclear power supply by 2022 was not just the culmination of a culture war lasting three decades; it also featured a little more colorful bickering before all five political parties reached a basic agreement.
Former Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel, a Social Democrat, reminded the ruling conservatives that a nuclear phase-out had not been their idea. He accused them of political opportunism and noted that the Social Democrats and Greens had suffered nothing but “malice, calumny, insult and defamation” for first passing a phase-out law 10 years ago.
Then the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament, voted 513-79 to rubberstamp the government’s plan to shut down all nuclear power plants according to a strict schedule over the next 11 years. The Left Party logged most of the “no” votes — but only because its members wanted a swifter phase-out.
The massively lopsided vote is a remarkable show of unity on a question that has divided western German politics more than any other since World War II. It’s even more remarkable that Merkel’s conservative coalition led the final offensive. Still, the disaster at Fukushima in March has made championing nuclear power in Germany too much of a political liability.
A Sea Change
West Germany introduced nuclear power in the late ’50s as a new and promising technology. After a number of accidents around the world in the ’70s, a left-wing protest movement grew and matured into the Green Party. The 1986 explosion at Chernobyl sent a radioactive cloud over Europe that still poisons mushrooms and wild boars . Since then, Germans have tended to mistrust nuclear power and, in 2001, the Social Democrats and the Greens — ruling as a coalition under then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder — passed a law providing for a nuclear phase-out by about 2020.
Even after the law was passed, there continued to be palpable opposition among conservatives. When the last Social Democrats were kicked out of Merkel’s government in 2009, it was clear that her coalition — made up of the Christian Democratic Union (CSU), its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and their new junior partner, the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) — would try to reverse the phase-out. By the fall of 2010, they’d succeeded .
But then came Fukushima. The subsequent political shift — not just by Merkel, but by the entire political establishment in Germany — was breathtaking. The vote in the Bundestag on Thursday has simply enshrined the change in law.
In Friday’s newspapers, German commentators weigh in on the new consensus and try to divine the as-yet-scarce details on Germany’s coming “energy revolution.”
The conservative daily Die Welt writes:
“When Agathocles landed with his army at Carthage, he had his own ships burned to dispel any notions of retreat. This motivational method is something Angela Merkel has adopted from the old tyrant of Syracuse. The chancellor will let Germany’s nuclear power plants go dark although it’s unclear whether replacement energy sources can be found by 2022. Gigantic volumes of wind and solar energy will now have to be developed in the slimmest amount of time. But no one knows how the fluctuating supply from these sources can be stored, made permanent or even delivered to consumers.”
The left-wing Berliner Zeitung writes:
“The decision in parliament marks a truly historic day because — unlike with the decision in 2001 — a reversal is hard to imagine. A return to nuclear power would come across as political suicide both today and probably in 10 years. But while a retreat from nuclear energy is assured, a great uncertainty clouds the prospects of meeting Germany’s future energy needs. All parties assure us that they have a master plan for the coming energy revolution, and that it only needs to be followed if Germany wants clean, affordable, secure sources of green energy.”
“You could just as easily dream up ideas for a perpetual-motion machine. The coming energy revolution will not be comfortable or problem-free. It will be expensive: Producing green energy costs significantly more than producing energy with coal and nuclear power. … The energy revolution will have dramatic consequences. Power cables and wind turbines will transform the German landscape and bring more protests. The energy revolution may enjoy a consensus now, but its implementation does not.”
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
“The CDU/CSU were for it, the FDP was for it, the Social Democrats were for it, the Greens were for it, and the Left Party was for it but couldn’t admit it. So why, on a day that saw unprecedented political ‘consensus’ over one of the great controversies of postwar (West) Germany — a day when politicians were adhering so closely to the will of the people — why were there so many doubtful, unsatisfied, cheerless faces?”
“Even if it amounted to a disagreement over just whose nuclear phase-out this was, the debate on Thursday in parliament marked the end of the last great ideological battle among Germans — the battle over the atom, which shaped the outlooks of entire generations and changed the parties in the political landscape.”
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
“A high-risk technology cannot be used over the long term against the will of citizens who know they’re being lied to. The German nuclear phase-out is a triumph of a grassroots movement that bloomed into a major movement of the government.”
“But it also speaks volumes about the relationship of a state to its people. For decades, the government and its enforcement agencies fought with all their might against citizens’ initiatives — only to lay bare their own lack of legitimacy in light of nuclear disasters (from Three Mile Island to Chernobyl). This can only be understood in terms of the relationship of a booming postwar nation to its economy — namely, to the representatives of large energy providers and their consumers. The fear of a bottleneck in the energy supply has weighed heavier in Germany than the fear of a nuclear meltdown. Unruly protesters (in the early days) were just an irritation.”
— Michael Scott Moore