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Germans vs. Nuclear Energy

November 10th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Although I’ve been living in Germany for more than two years now, I rarely write about its internal politics, mostly because I don’t feel confident enough in my understanding of the system to comment intelligently. However, there are some things I know enough about to form a solid opinion, and nuclear energy is one of them.

Full disclosure: The language school I work for has a contract with one of Germany’s largest energy companies, so most of my income comes to me (indirectly) from the energy industry. Not that such a thing would influence my opinion (I’ve worked for companies I hate before) but discussing the issue with people in the industry has no doubt had some effect. Most of the information in this entry comes from them.

You might have heard about the recent protests in Dannenberg, at which tens of thousands of demonstrators blocked the railway tracks in an effort to stop a shipment of nuclear waste returning to Germany for storage after processing in France. The shipment was headed to the town of Gorleben, where the residents successfully managed to bring in Greenpeace to turn what had been purely a “not in my backyard” issue into an international rebuke of nuclear energy in general.

I am a bleeding-heart liberal, so I am a fan of Greenpeace and of protests in general, but on this issue I have to disagree with the demonstrators.

When it comes to potential sources of energy, they all have their downsides. Oil and coal pollute the air and accelerate global climate change, hydro-electric dams wreak havoc on the surrounding environment, and nuclear energy produces radioactive waste. People who live near facilities in which this waste is stored have a legitimate gripe.

But the fact is we need to produce energy somehow, unless we want to go back to a pre-industrial civilization. [While I personally wouldn’t mind that, I’ll just assume for the sake of this entry that we all do want to keep the engines of civilization churning.] It would be nice if we could run our cities using nothing but clean and renewable energy, but as of now this is just not feasible. Current technology for harnessing wind and solar energy does not output nearly enough to sustain civilization at its current level.

The only realistic options are fossil fuels or nuclear power. Since nuclear energy doesn’t emit greenhouse gases, it seems the logical choice. The radioactive waste is a problem, but only for the local areas in which that waste is stored. It doesn’t harm the environment on a global scale like fossil fuels do. Furthermore, the amount of radiation that people who live near storage sites are exposed to isn’t terribly harmful—I wouldn’t say it’s harmless but it’s not much worse than tobacco, alcohol, or any of the other poisons people put into their bodies voluntarily—and those people do have the option of moving somewhere else (as much trouble as that might cause them).

I therefore agree with Chancellor Merkel that nuclear energy should be considered a “bridge” technology—something to keep Germany’s cities operating until clean energy technology can completely replace it.

What Germany has been facing over the last decade with regards to nuclear energy is a political problem. Unlike the United States, Germany has more than two major political parties. They have the two big ones—the conservative CDU (Merkel’s party) and the more labor-friendly SPD—but they also have a few other major players including the far left “Linke” party, the business-friendly FDP and the Green Party. This means that there is almost never a single political party with a plurality of votes in the parliament. To form a working majority, the party with the most seats has to form a coalition with another party.

When the SPD was in power, they formed a coalition with the Green Party, and one of the Green Party’s demands was to phase out all nuclear energy from Germany. They successfully passed legislation that would force all nuclear power plants to shut down before their expiration dates, cutting their operational life-spans by more than ten years in most cases.

When the CDU took over the majority, they had to form a coalition with their arch-rival SPD, which made passing legislation about as impossible as it is in the United States when the government is divided. Nothing was done on the nuclear issue, but when the FDP gained enough seats in the last major election a new coalition was formed between them and the CDU. One of the promises made before the election was that a CDU-FDP (or “Black-Yellow” referring to the parties’ designated colors) coalition would re-extend the life-spans of Germany’s nuclear plants back to their original expiration dates.

This is an important point that has been overlooked by nearly everyone reporting on the protests. Nobody in the government is proposing building more nuclear power plants or even extending the life-spans of those currently operating. They only want to allow those plants to run as long as they were originally intended.

Try telling that to the protesters. Their hearts are in the right place, but what they want just isn’t practical. Without its nuclear plants, Germany simply wouldn’t have enough energy to make it through the next ten years. They’d have to make up for the shortage by buying their energy from France. And guess where most of France’s energy comes from? Nuclear power.

The Green Party has promised to fight the Black-Yellow coalition’s efforts to keep the nuclear plants running, and it will soon be decided in court whether this can be done by simple declaration or if it must be done with a majority vote. If it requires a majority vote, the measure will fail because recent local elections have cost the Black-Yellow coalition their plurality.

I find it slightly ridiculous that so much energy is being wasted (pun intended) on this issue. The protesters calling for the abolition of nuclear energy in Germany remind me of Tea Party protesters calling for more deregulation of the financial industry. Both are espousing a cause that if successful will actually do more harm to their country than good.

It would seem that even in Germany, people respond with knee-jerk reactions before thinking things through. They hear “nuclear energy” and think of Hiroshima and Chernobyl and decide that it must be bad—end of story. Pay no attention to nuance: to the fact that Germany’s laws require so much oversight and so many safety precautions that a Three-Mile-Island-like situation would be unthinkable here, that nuclear energy is far cleaner than most of the viable alternatives, and that Germany simply can’t operate without it right now.

The real criminals, however, are the politicians who use the nuclear issue to boost their popularity and deliberately mislead the public into believing it’s more dangerous than it is and who ignore the practical costs of its elimination.

Hopefully we will one day be able to power the entire world with clean and renewable resources, but we’re not there yet. Until then, we have to go with less-than-ideal technology, and since the alternatives do far more harm to the planet I’d say nuclear is our best option for the moment. People should eventually demand the complete elimination of nuclear energy, but the demonstrators currently protesting in Germany are at least 50 years too early.

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