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Skeptic at the German Anti-Nuke Protest

March 20th, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments


For the past two and a half years I’ve made my money by working for a private language school that stays in business mostly through one major client, E.ON, one of Germany’s largest energy companies. E.ON has power plants of every kind from coal and oil to wind and solar, but generates most of its electricity through nuclear power. Nuclear energy has been tremendously unpopular among the German people for decades, and over the course of my time as an English teacher for E.ON employees I’ve heard just about all of them lament at one time or another how uninformed the people are on this issue. Anti-nuclear protests are nothing new in Germany, and the visibility of this public sentiment has made the politics of nuclear power very difficult for the politicians, as they struggle to find a balance between the interests of the energy industry and the will of the people.

As an American, it surprises me that for the most part, the government has generally responded more to the pressure of the masses than to the energy lobbyists, and for awhile planned to close down Germany’s nuclear reactors after only a fraction of their natural lifetimes. The E.ON employees I teach find this monumentally stupid, as they all tell me that without nuclear energy in the mix, Germany would simply not generate enough power to keep the grid running. They would have no choice but to buy energy from France, which generates most of its energy through nuclear power anyway. When Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat Party (CDU) ran their re-election campaign in 2009, one of their platforms dared to go against popular sentiment and extend the lifetimes of these nuclear plants back to their original expiration dates. Naturally, the E.ON employees were all quite happy when her party won the election.

It took some time and much additional lobbying to get them to actually follow through on their promise, but last year it began to look as though the German government was finally going to extend the lifetimes of these plants. Then Fukushima happened, and this decision was instantly called back into question. Plans to extend the lifetime of these nuclear plants have now been put on hold so the politicians can debate it even more, giving time to leftist organizations and political parties to launch another major anti-nuclear campaign nationwide.KT20110319_Atomdemo_06_imagelarge

One of the anti-nuclear rallies took place yesterday in the city of Hannover where I live. One of my friends, Lena, the girlfriend of another friend Oliver, is a member of the Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany (MLPD) and she wanted to take part in this demonstration. I decided it would be an interesting experience to go as well, even though my opinion on the nuclear issue is more closely aligned with that of the E.ON employees I teach. I was hoping to hear some arguments against nuclear energy that I could take to the E.ON employees this week to see how they respond. My mind is not entirely made up on this issue.

Here is where my opinion is now: I agree that nuclear energy is dangerous, but I don’t think it’s as dangerous as most people think. The incident at Chernobyl was a result of poor planning and design, and the Three Mile Island incident was more of a scare than a disaster as it resulted in no confirmable loss of life. As for Fukushima, there were some design flaws as well, but in any case I do think it’s foolish to built nuclear power plants when your country is in the Ring of Fire, positioned along a major fault line in the earth’s crust that you know for a fact is one day going to erupt in a major earthquake. But in Germany, where the earth’s crust is stable and where government oversight is stricter than almost anywhere in the world, I think building nuclear power plants is quite sensible at the current point in time. The E.ON employees have thoroughly convinced me that with all of the safety measures and failsafes upon failsafes that must be put in place before a nuclear reactor can start operating, disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima would be unthinkable here.

But obviously, nothing is impossible, and even if the plants are safe there’s still the matter of the nuclear waste, which we still have no ideal way to dispose of. We should not go on using nuclear energy indefinitely, and I’m firmly in favor of a worldwide shift to renewables in the coming decades. Where I differ with the protesters is that I think we need to keep using nuclear energy for the time being, as the technology behind wind and solar power is still in its infancy and generating power from these sources is still very inefficient. Most of the base-load energy generation is from nuclear and fossil-fuels, while wind and solar only come into the mix during periods of high energy usage. They supplement the power generated by nuclear and fossil fuels, and couldn’t power the entire grid on their own by a long-shot.

So if we decide at this very moment to shut down the nuclear reactors in Germany, we would have to A) buy energy from France which is generated through nuclear power anyway, and/or B) use more fossil fuels, thus accelerating global warming. The biggest virtue of nuclear power in my opinion is that it does not add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and thus does not contribute to climate change. If we replaced all coal and oil-fired plants with nuclear plants, the climate change problem would be far less dire.

For these reasons I think we should go nuclear for now, while we invest heavily in improving renewable energy technology so that we can one day move away from nuclear as well.

At the demonstration in Hannover, it felt very strange to think that I might have had the most conservative opinion there. I’m normally to the left of just about everyone in a room, but on this issue I was to the right of the whole crowd. I was hoping to engage a few people in a debate about the topic and possibly learn some things I didn’t already know, but nobody likes to speak English so the only people I talked to were Lena and others I already know.

The crowd itself was something to see. They expected about 3,000 people but I read online later that there were at least twice that number, and now they’re estimating 10,000. You could see banners and flags of all kinds of organizations and political parties there, from Lena’s communist party to the more mainstream SPD, Green Party, and Die Linke. The crowd was about as mixed as you could imagine as well, with just about every age group  represented.

Last year I attended a different protest in Hannover, this one against the military. It was in response to a group of high-ranking military officials and members of Germany’s military industrial complex meeting for a fancy dinner at Hannover’s Congress building, and the only groups there were the leftiest of the left. There hadn’t been a specific issue behind that protest other than the demand to remove German troops out of Afghanistan, but it was mostly just to yell and shout at these officials with their blood-stained hands as they made their way into the Congress building. The crowd there was only between one and two hundred, almost all of them in their twenties or thirties and looking like the stereotypical hippie-protest crowd.

KT20110319_Atomdemo_21_imagelarge But the people at this demonstration just looked like any random sample of Germans, plain and ordinary people who came out in all likelihood as their way of responding to the disaster in Japan. There were old people, families with babies and little kids, and even teenagers there. At the anti-military demonstration there had been about one police officer to every protester in case things got out of hand, but here the police force was barely visible.

There were a lot of kids coming up to the MLPD stand where Lena was working, as they had set up a little fund-raising game where for 50 cents kids could throw tennis-balls at a stack of tin cans with pictures of Germany’s nuclear power plants taped to them. Honestly, I thought this was rather silly, but the kids liked it and the Marxists managed to raise a total of €15 which apparently goes to pay for the cost of printing flyers.

I spent the first thirty minutes helping out there while the crowd gathered strength outside the opera house, and then the march began. It was then that I asked Lena if she could find someone to convince me that nuclear energy generation in Germany should be stopped, and she took a stab at it herself. It was nothing I hadn’t heard before—what about the waste? What if there’s a disaster? Etc. I gave my counter-argument that because renewable energy technology isn’t yet efficient enough to power the grid, our only two real options now are fossil fuels and nuclear power so we should go with nuclear as a temporary means of keeping things up and running. Lena had to go do something else at this point, so she passed me over to Kai, a guy I met at the MLPD New Years’ Eve party, who struggled to find the English to explain why I was wrong. He said that Germany produces more energy than it uses and that it exports 7%, so if they just stopped exporting they wouldn’t need nuclear, an argument I found very un-convincing. But he also insisted that Germany could transition to a completely green-energy-based economy in just five years, a fact that if true would give me reason to reconsider my view, but I’m skeptical about that.KT20110319_Atomdemo_32_imagelarge

I stopped talking politics for awhile and just marched next to Oliver making jokes and scanning the crowd. It was amazing to see how many people were there. A line of protesters marching down the street as far as the eye could see—this was definitely the largest demonstration I’ve ever been a part of (though I’ve only been to three).

The day took a much different turn as Oliver and I got bored with the march and broke ranks with the protesters to go have a beer, which led to another beer and then another and before we knew it the protest was over and we were sitting in an Irish pub where Lena met up with us when her work was done.

Lena and I got back into the discussion and she gave me some additional arguments that I can’t wait to take to my E.ON students this week. She insisted that if they were really serious, the German government could switch to an energy grid powered entirely by renewables in five years’ time. This morning she sent me links to the sources from which she got her information, including an online pamphlet from Greenpeace, an article from rf-news busting some supposed myths about nuclear energy, an official document about the future of Shell, and a few other anti-nuclear pamphlets from various organizations. Unfortunately my German abilities aren’t good enough to parse these documents, but they at least prove that the anti-nuke crowd has plenty of facts on their side. What’s unclear is just how selectively chosen those facts are.

The last point I made to Lena was about the efficacy of these protests themselves. In an ideal world, the German government might actually respond by forcing the energy industry to convert to purely green-technology as quickly as they possibly can. But that’s not the political reality. The German government, widely viewed by the people as a pathetic do-nothing body of squabbling politicians, would never make such a bold move. At best, these protests will result in the shutting down of Germany’s existing nuclear reactors before they reach their natural expiration dates, thus forcing more energy to be generated by greenhouse-gas emitting power plants or imported from France where it would be merely come from their nuclear power plants instead of Germany’s. Germany’s nuclear problem would merely be replaced with other problems.

Lena said she completely understands that point, but she offered one last counter-point that I thought was actually quite strong: if we don’t force the energy industry to convert to green energy, what incentive do they have to do it? Nuclear power plants are like money-printing machines for the industry, generating about €1 million in profit per day. Why would they bother investing so much money in more research and development on wind and solar technology when they can just keep on doing what they’re doing? What’s to stop them from building more nuclear plants in the future instead of wind and solar farms if the people aren’t demanding they don’t?

In the coming week I’ll be taking these arguments to the E.ON employees and hearing their responses. If I learn anything interesting, I’ll write a follow-up post next weekend.

But for now, I just want to say for the sake of my American readers that while I am comfortable with nuclear plants being used in Germany, I don’t feel the same way about building new nuclear plants in the United States where regulation and government oversight aren’t quite so strict. Given what happened last year with BP in the Gulf of Mexico and what happened before that with Massey Energy in West Virginia, I think it’s safe to say that the U.S. government does not have a very good track record of making sure corporations don’t cut corners. The cutting of corners claimed 25 lives in West Virginia and 11 lives in the Gulf as well as massive environmental damage, but these disasters would be nothing compared to what could potentially happen if a lack of oversight leads to an explosion of a nuclear reactor. Building a nuclear plant in this kind of political environment is just as short-sighted and potentially disastrous as building one in a volatile geological environment.

As for those victims and potential victims of the nuclear industry in Japan, my heart goes out to them and I sincerely hope that the worst is behind them. It is entirely appropriate that this crisis makes us take a second look at nuclear power generation, but let’s make sure we have an intelligent discussion instead of just a massive knee-jerk reaction, and that the policy changes we make are based in facts and not just political calculation.

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