Germany has never been consistent in its nuclear policy-making, but hitherto it has always maintained a monopoly over its decisions regarding nuclear power. In 1969, Germany privatized the nuclear power plant industry with a promising prospect of obtaining one-quarter of its electricity from nuclear energy. But in 1972, thousands of German residents demonstrated in the southwestern city of Wyhl to prevent the construction of a local nuclear plant, a brawl that saw the people emerge victorious. In 1979, protesters in Hannover and Bonn were in the hundreds of thousands. Ever since, the German government has been alternating between passing policies that stimulate the nuclear industry and policies that regulate it based on public demands. Yet the most radical U-turn was undertaken by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. After unveiling $4.53 billion in subsidies for the renewal of nuclear power plants in September of 2010, she announced that Germany would undergo a complete nuclear phase-out by 2022 merely a year later, shutting down eight operating reactors in March of 2011.
Thus far, however, Germany’s nuclear decisions have been steered by domestic activism; be it through the lobbying of its formidable nuclear industry or the grassroots pressure exerted on politicians from ordinary Germans that frequently showcase their nuclear disagreements on the streets. That changed when Germany fell victim to a cyber-attack on its nuclear power plant in Gundremmingen, a city in Southern Germany. The cyber-attack was part of a larger scheme of attacks on nuclear plants across Europe conducted by Islamic State (IS) earlier this October. The Gundremmingen power plant is the highest-output nuclear power station in Germany, generating almost a fifth of Germany’s entire electricity production from nuclear power. The virus was detected on a computer in the reactor building, the part of the plant that hosts the most potent element: the reactor. Immediately after the news surfaced, the German populace was clear with its anti-nuclear message. Protests spawned in each of the nine cities with operating nuclear reactors and elected officials faced paramount pressures to hasten the nuclear phase-out.
These cyber-attacks have not only catalyzed Germany’s phase-out but also both spurred and hastened nuclear phase-outs in other European countries, including Belgium, Spain, and Switzerland. This recent development has given rise to two major causes for concern in these countries: firstly, increasing the security of nuclear plants is far less costly than dismantling them; secondly, there are rational reasons for preserving nuclear power as an energy source that shouldn’t be fogged by emotional responses to a threat from abroad. Yet, nowhere are the implications of a lesson learned clearer than in Germany, a country that has been tacitly vacillating between pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear stances, and is now paying the price for underestimating the gravity of flirting with the world’s most powerful source of power. Angela Merkel and her cabinet need to take a step back from pandering to public unrest and re-evaluate what a sustainable future of harvesting nuclear energy looks like in Europe’s economic powerhouse.
European contradictions: from nuclear to devastating
The German case of inconsistency in nuclear policy-making is a microcosm of what has burdened the Old Continent for the past century. While the power and magnitude of an inconspicuous splitting of Uranium was immediately made clear to the bystanders of the Manhattan Project in 1942, the responsibility of harvesting that power was relayed to future generations. These generations have failed to be consistent in their handling of the mankind’s most powerful weapon. The contradictions in views regarding nuclear power have been most apparent in Europe, where possession of nuclear power added legitimacy to the post-WWII Paris Peace Treaties, but triggered 40 years of insecurity during the Cold War; where it spawned the potential for a Europe battling climate change, but defiled its landscapes with unpalatable power plants; where it provided cheap energy to a growing population, yet unveiled its catastrophic ramifications in Chernobyl. At every stage, politicians have been quick to sway public opinion and ratify policies that fit their time and place. Making poignant arguments when it comes to nuclear power isn’t a demanding task for politicians when horrors like Fukishima still lurk in people’s minds. By the same token, an arsenal equipped with nuclear safety and positive environmental impacts has come in handy when policy-makers needed to make the opposite case. The issues arise when policy-makers ignore the consequences of populist approaches to nuclear power.
A first such issue is that of cost. Germany, the protagonist in Europe’s nuclear phase-out, had 37 nuclear power plants operating at its peak in the 1980s. Today it has eight. Building such a nuclear power plant costs on average $2 billion (adjusted to inflation); safely dismantling it costs another billion. It is unsustainable for any country to vacillate between amenity and despair when it comes to nuclear power. In total, dismantling the eleven remaining nuclear reactors would cost Germany a whopping $42 billion, including costs of nuclear waste disposal. It is important to note that this proposal was passed before Germany was engulfed by the European migrant crisis, which has cost Germany $86 billion so far. But nuclear power plants aren’t simply dismantled and then declared to be vanished, which is where the second issue arises, namely that of nuclear waste. It takes several decades for engineers to revert a nuclear site to “greenfield” status and simultaneously produces tons of nuclear waste. No German region is currently willing to be the host of these poisonous remains.
Germany, the protagonist in Europe’s nuclear phase-out, had 37 nuclear power plants operating at its peak in the 1980s. Today it has eight.
Probably the most pervading issue is that lately conventional politicians have been substituted as vehicles of nuclear views. On October 11, 2016, when the UN warned Europe of IS hackers planning to attack European nuclear power stations, Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande and their counterparts lost their grips of public opinion. Today, IS is convincingly leading the movement against nuclear power in Europe. But Germany must not resort to a panicked reaction – it needs to see the benefits of sustaining an environmentally friendly, powerful and efficient, and reliable source of energy.
Dismantling the threat from abroad
IS is successfully catalyzing Germany’s nuclear phase-out because the German people are all too familiar with the consequences of nuclear power falling into the wrong hands. There is no doubt that nuclear warfare cannot be localized and, if initiated, would lead to devastation. Ever since the world saw the cataclysms of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, governments across the world have attempted a concerted effort to prevent such events from recurring. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) entered into force in 1970 as a bright prospect for a safe future. While the world – barring India, Israel, Pakistan, and South Sudan – came together to achieve nuclear peace, the structural nature of terrorist groups such as IS prevent an agreement as such to be reached multilaterally with all of the world’s potential threats. Instead, the world relies on alternative mechanisms, such as the difficulty of reaping resources, garnering know-how, and accessing testing-grounds for the development of a nuclear bomb. It isn’t unreasonable to believe that IS will not independently get its hands on a nuclear bomb. Yet, as was proven in early October, this doesn’t prevent IS from becoming a worldwide nuclear threat.
There is a deeply rooted fragility in nuclear power plants, and IS is managing to tap into the Achilles heel of nuclear safety. Operating nuclear power plants has become a robotized process, and rightly so. Human exposure to the physical environment inside a nuclear power plant is extremely hazardous, which means that even large industrial facilities rarely have employees in close vicinity of the nuclear reactor. Furthermore, nuclear-power generation is a meticulous science. Both these reasons have led to the development of artificial intelligence and computerized processes that administer and maintain the nuclear reactor. As was shown with the cyber-attack on Gundremmingen, where the source of the virus is believed to have been a USB stick inserted into the employee’s computer, security breaches can be difficult to prevent or detect in nuclear plants. Yet, since most nuclear reactors are closed off from the internet, having more stringent security checks on employees working in nuclear facilities is a relatively cheap fix, albeit not perfect.
The panacea for a nuclear panic
Retrospectively, Angela Merkel and her cabinet should’ve informed the public of the advantages of nuclear power rather than pandered to it by calling for a complete phase-out back in 2011. The ordinary citizen, who lives in a city whose skyline is shackled to huge, concrete chimneys and who consumes sensationalized information about the threat of IS to something so devastating as the nuclear power plant down the street, isn’t in the right mindset to perceive the benefits of nuclear energy. When nuclear energy is weighed against its current alternative, fossil fuels, efficiency, environmental degradation, and sustainability all sway towards the former. Naturally, however, Germans are more likely to vent their uncertainties in street demonstrations rather than patiently have them addressed at nuclear energy equivalents to town hall meetings. This is where the role of politicians becomes integral. Angela Merkel shouldn’t use the IS cyber-attacks as a final, flippant attempt to assuage public discontent with her handling of the migrant crisis. Germany’s demand for energy increases year by year, yet it currently has no sustainable substitute for nuclear energy. The nuclear phase-out needs to be re-evaluated, but at worst it shouldn’t be dictated by a terrorist organization.