Germany's Development and Fear of Nuclear Energy: A Tale of Two Stances

Germany's Development and Fear of Nuclear Energy: A Tale of Two Stances

. 6 min read

Votja Drmota. Originally published in December 2017.

Germany has never been consistent in its nuclear policy-making, at times leading the way as a European nuclear powerhouse and at others calling for an end to nuclear reactors of all types. 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 from which the people emerged victorious. In 1979, the number of protesters in Hannover and Bonn surged to the hundreds of thousands, causing the government to question its stance on nuclear energy. Ever since, Germany has been alternating between passing policies that stimulate the nuclear industry and policies that regulate based on public demands. The most radical U-turn yet was undertaken by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. After unveiling $4.53 billion in subsidies for the renewal of nuclear power plants in September of 2010, she pivoted just a year later, announcing that Germany would undergo a complete nuclear phase-out by 2022, which she began by shutting down eight operating reactors in March of 2011.

Thus far, many of Germany’s nuclear decisions have been steered by domestic activism; be it through the lobbying of the formidable nuclear industry or the grassroots pressure exerted on politicians from ordinary Germans who frequently showcase their nuclear antipathy on the streets. When Germany fell victim to a cyber-attack on its nuclear power plant in Gundremmingen, a city in Southern Germany, citizen activism made its position clear. 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 should not 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

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 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. Contradictions arose; while nuclear energy spawned the potential for a Europe battling climate change, it defiled its landscapes with unpalatable power plants. Also, 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 Fukushima 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. 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 eight remaining nuclear reactors would cost Germany a whopping $42 billion. 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 produce tons of nuclear waste. No German region is currently willing to be the host of these poisonous remains.

Probably the most pervasive issue is the tension between local politicians, activists, and national leaders. On October 11, 2016, when the United Nations warned Europe of ISIL hackers planning to attack European nuclear power stations, Angela Merkel and her counterparts across Europe lost their grips on public opinion. Today, ISIL is convincingly leading the movement against nuclear power in Europe. But Germany must not resort to a panic reaction – it needs to see the benefits of sustaining an environmentally friendly, powerful and efficient, and reliable source of energy.

The threat from abroad

ISIL 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 ISIL prevent such an agreement to be reached multilaterally with all of the world’s potential threat. 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 ISIL will not independently get its hands on a nuclear bomb. Yet, as was proven in early October, this doesn’t prevent ISIL from becoming a worldwide nuclear threat.

There is a deeply rooted fragility in nuclear power plants, and ISIL 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 be 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 Nuclear Panic

Retrospectively, Angela Merkel and her cabinet should have informed the public rather than pandering to it back in 2011. Though the prospect of ISIL hacking the nuclear power plant that dominates your city skyline may be frightening, nuclear energy has tangible benefits. When nuclear energy is weighed against its current alternatives, it always outperforms in terms of efficiency, environmental impact, and sustainability. Furthermore, dismantling nuclear power plants is expensive and creates excess nuclear waste. Yet, everyday Germans continue 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 should address the situation with information and active decision-making, rather than using her anti-nuclear response to the ISIL cyber-attacks as an attempt to assuage public discontent with her handling of the migrant crisis. The energy problem is pressing, as 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, and fears of terrorism should not be the only consideration.