Before Japan's Fukushima disaster, in any German debate on nuclear power, Chancellor Angela Merkel played the role of a cautious and conservative mother hen. We may not like it, she said, but nuclear energy is easy on the climate, and a national shift to solar and wind power would need a long and sturdy "bridge technology." A trained physicist, she seemed to speak from professional prudence.
After Fukushima, she changed her mind with dizzying speed. The results are well known: German nuclear plants will go dark by 2022, and the nation will steer a hard course for renewable power by working as a group, like Boy Scouts, to replace the nuclear portion of its energy demand (about 25 percent) with solar, wind, biomass and natural gas. The world's fourth-largest industrial nation is officially in the throes of what Germans call the energiewende, an energy revolution named after the change, or wende, that followed the collapse of Communism.
What made her do it? Germany isn't prone to earthquakes or tsunamis, and Angela Merkel is not a Green. She'd just finished killing a similar phase-out law passed by Greens and Social Democrats in 2001. (She wanted to let the plants run out their useful lives, till about 2040.) Her opponents accused her of fixing back-room deals with the masters of the nuclear industry, and her party, the Christian Democrats, has been the traditional voice of those masters.
But now Merkel, and almost every other German politician, seemed as green as a crate of avocados. A fixed schedule for the nuclear shutdown passed the parliament with a stunning 513-79 vote in June; most of the "nein" votes came from the Left Party, which wanted to shut the plants even faster.
U.S. critics from the left and right lost no time dismissing the new German determination as a lot of pointless dreaming. "You Germans are on your own," said Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth pioneer and environmentalist-turned-nuclear-champion. He sees no alternative to nuclear power if governments want to slow emissions. The Wall Street Journal tut-tutted that Germany would either have to use more of its own coal (and warm up the climate) or buy nuclear current from France.
From a distance it may be hard to see the magnitude of Merkel's shift. Imagine a Green Party storming the gates of American politics in about 1980 and blindsiding Democrats with the single-minded goal of closing the country's nuclear plants. Then imagine a Republican president, after 30 years, swinging around to their position without a revolt from below. Since the Cold War ended, nuclear power has been the pivot point in German politics, the defining point of contention. One paper in July quipped that the five German parties had nothing to argue about now.
Also on Miller-McCune.com, how an expert in nuclear power safety soured on the energy source and turned to solar.
The Germans might fail. The project could go wrong in a number of ways because the government still lacks a clear plan for its energiewende.
But one problem was solved right away. A major obstacle to green energy was always the nightmare of building a high-capacity network to carry the juice from state to state without serious loss. The cost and hassle of winning rights-of-way and building the grid were always a compelling reason to be grim about renewables. But in April — 40 days after Fukushima — members of Merkel's government announced a new idea. Hang on, they essentially said, we have a railroad!German high-speed trains move all around the country, and with all those corridors and cable masts, most of the problem could be solved.
This idea didn't materialize under a minister's pillow in April like a gift from the Tooth Fairy. It must have languished for years on somebody's desk, with its own problems and complications. Raising it as a serious project needed the right political climate, as well as pressure from above. That's what drove Merkel's turnaround: This sudden blind pressure to do something, unprecedented in the Western world, or else face a frightening energy shortfall (and coal smoke) in 2022.