Germany’s (Over) Reaction to the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster

March 11, 2011-Oshika Peninsula of Tohoku, Japan

Forty three miles off the coast of Oshika Pennisula of Tohoku, a 9.3 magnitude earthquake occurs. This  is the most powerful earthquake ever to hit Japan and one of the five most powerful earthquakes in the world since record-keeping began in 1900.   The earthquake triggers a powerful tsunami, with waves reaching  up to 133 feet.   Within hours, a nine meter high wave struck the number two reactor and a thirteen meter high wave struck the number one reactor within the nuclear reactor complex. The ensuing disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant produces a series of meltdowns, equipment failures and releases of radioactive materials.  There are several deaths and thirty seven people were injured as a result.   A twelve mile radius around the complex is evacuated, affecting hundreds of thousands of residents. The area surrounding the complex is still uninhabitable and cleanup continues today. This is the worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

May 30, 2011-Berlin, Germany(5,628 miles from Japan)

The coalition government of Germany, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, announced today a reversal of  its nuclear energy policy and ordered Germany’s oldest reactors to be shut down immediately, and possibly permanently. It will phase out all nuclear power plants by 2022, making Germany the largest industrialized nation to renounce nuclear energy.  Mass anti-nuclear protests erupted throughout Germany. Was this simply an overreaction based on German ‘angst’, or a reflection of the influence The Green Party has had both in the German government as well as many sectors of German society?

     In this introductory forum, I will evaluate the circumstances   that led to Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear power by 2022. We will look at the development of nuclear energy in Germany as well as the growth of the Green Party and its influence on both the party politic as well as that of the German psyche.

The History of Nuclear Energy in Germany

The first nuclear reactor went online  in February, 1962, in Kahl, southeast of Frankfurt. Eight years later the first anti-nuclear protests and marches took place in Germany.  The Social Democrat-Green coalition government, under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, along with Germany’s four primary utility companies, begin negotiations in 1999 on drafting  a nuclear law. A year later the atomic energy industry and Schröder’s government reach an agreement on the countries’ nuclear energy program, including a gradual phase-out by 2021. This legislation is scheduled to take effect the following year. Nineteen plants are currently operating in Germany. In September 2010, The Christian Democratic-Free Democrat coalition under Chancellor Angela Merkel  approves the extension of the lifespan of Germany’s nuclear power plants by an overall average of twelve years, with the last reactor to shut down  in 2036. The number of reactors in Germany is now seventeen. In February 2011 five German federal states led by opposition parties file a lawsuit against the extension. In March the German government temporarily closed its seven oldest reactors after the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan’s Fukushima power plant and launched a safety probe into  its nuclear power plants. In May the government agrees to close all reactors by 2022. The eight oldest  reactors will remain permanently shut, while another six will be taken offline by 2021. The remaining three most modern reactors will stay online until 2022.

The  Rise of the Greens(and I don’t mean veggies!)

The sentiment against nuclear power can be clearly traced to the Green Party, which arose during the rebellions of the late 1960’s, and espoused both anti-capitalist as well as anti-authoritarian ideals. During that same time, however, nuclear power was being promoted on both sides of the Berlin Wall as a viable solution to the supply and demand of energy economics.  The Greens rejected this from both sides: nuclear energy was seen as militarist, owing to its association with nuclear weapons and it was also considered authoritarian because of its promotion of  a centralized power structure. In the wake of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, nuclear power was perceived as a dangerous threat to  global stability, and  the collective opposition was forever galvanized. It was during the early ‘00s, under  the Schröder administration, that the Greens were able to wield significant political influence and thus began  their drive to eliminate all nuclear power. When Angela  Merkel came into power, the agreement to shut down all nuclear power plants was suspended.  The events in Japan, however, gave Merkel’s coalition government the opportunity to abandon their decision, thus ‘saving face’.