The 2019 miniseries Chernobyl, about the deadly 1986 nuclear power plant accident in Ukraine, was—unsurprisingly—an immense commercial success: a nuclear disaster makes for good drama. But in my native country of Germany, we are currently witnessing a nuclear disaster of a different kind. Our disaster lacks the attention-grabbing suspense of Chernobyl—it doesn’t feature victims of radiation poisoning or secret services intent on a coverup. But it is a disaster nonetheless: ever since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant accident, Germany has been on track to completely relinquish the use of nuclear energy. In light of climate change, this was a disastrous decision: it will be a tragedy if Germany continues to dispose of this low-carbon-emission energy source at the very moment when humanity has finally awakened to the urgency of reducing CO2 emissions.
In my experience, arguing in favour of nuclear energy—especially as a leftist in Germany—has been a study in cognitive dissonance. Not only the Green Party and leftist friends, but many respected German scientists and politicians, declare that fossil fuels must be kept in the ground, but at the same time see no problem with Germany’s farewell to nuclear energy—a farewell that has ironically been a huge gift to the coal industry. (It has also been troubling to hear my fellow leftists defend the closing of nuclear plants by invoking the spectres of terrorist attacks and mass death by radiation—using, in effect, the same fact-free scaremongering tactic that they rightly snark at when conservatives employ it on other topics.)
After the Fukushima disaster, protests against nuclear energy erupted in several German cities. Even though the nuclear meltdowns were generally perceived as deadly, only one person is presumed to have died of radiation poisoning. Most deaths were caused by the preceding tsunami, as well as by the Japanese government’s hasty evacuation. The then-chancellor Angela Merkel, a trained physicist and former minister for the environment, had previously defended nuclear energy as a clean, reliable energy source. But in the wake of Fukushima, she reversed her position and began preparations to close all of Germany’s nuclear plants. Of the 17 plants still active in 2011, eight were shut down that very year. On 31 December 2021, the German government pulled the plug on three of its remaining six nuclear power plants. The last three facilities are due to be closed by the end of 2022, thus making Germany officially atomfrei.
Merkel’s decision may have been partly influenced by political considerations, such as a handful of upcoming regional elections and the Green Party’s rising popularity in the polls. But she also appears to have been genuinely shocked by the disaster in Japan: “In Fukushima,” she said, “we couldn’t help but take notice that, even in a technologically advanced country like Japan, the risks of nuclear energy cannot be securely controlled.” Yet, as the German historian of technology Anna Veronika Wendland has shown, Merkel was relying on faulty assumptions. Her image of Japan as technologically advanced was skewed by that country’s technological prowess in particular fields, such as automobiles and robotics, while she failed to take into account Japan’s lower nuclear safety standards.
Later analysis showed that Japan’s emergency plans had been inadequate—and hardly a match for Germany’s long-established high safety standards. For example, Japanese emergency planners had relied only on their century-old plans for responses to earthquakes and tsunamis, whereas German nuclear power plants are designed to withstand flooding levels that have historically occurred only once in 10,000 years. Thus, Merkel appears to have reasoned too simplistically when she imagined that, if it can happen there, surely it can happen here. Had she consulted her own experts, her concerns could easily have been dispelled.
When Merkel decided to phase out nuclear energy, many environmentalists lauded her decision: they dreamed that there would soon be a so-called Energiewende (“energy turn”) in renewables that would enable nuclear energy to be completely replaced by energy from wind turbines and solar panels. But instead, Germany compensated for its closed nuclear plants by ramping up coal production, which increased its annual CO2 emissions by 36 megatons. Researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research in the US have estimated that this added pollution is killing more than 1,000 people annually. Germans have not been dying because of exposure to radiation from their nuclear plants: they have been dying from pollution-induced lung cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Alas, most of my German compatriots seem to be unaware of these facts, and to reject nuclear technology with a visceral, instinctual passion which makes it hard to persuade them and which sets them apart from our nuclear-embracing neighbours in France, where the atom supplies two-thirds of the country’s (much cleaner) energy. How to explain the difference? Perhaps it is due to Germany’s famously troubled relationship with modernity: the country also gave birth to quackeries like Rudolf Steiner’s racist anthroposophy and Samuel Hahnemann’s homeopathy. (German health insurance companies today still pay for homeopathy treatments, and German-speaking countries have been found to be the most vaccine-hesitant in Europe.)
That said, even in Germany, public opinion on nuclear energy may have started to shift—especially when nuclear energy is presented as a means to fight climate change. And yet German legislators, members of the media and energy companies that have embraced renewables remain solidly opposed to it. These guardians of the elite consensus on nuclear energy have increasingly been advancing improbable rationales for their position. For example, Stefan Rahmstorf, a prominent climate scientist and advisor to the federal government, has recently noted on Twitter: “Some non-German nuclear power fans keep claiming that German emissions are not falling fast enough because we phase out nuclear power plants,” thereby falsely implying that criticisms of nuclear power come only from ill-informed foreigners, and that Germans, by contrast, are in harmonious agreement that the nuclear phase-out is good policy.
According to Rahmstorf, “Germany follows a strategy to phase out nuclear in favour of renewables. The major investment in the latter would not have happened without the former; politically these are coupled.” That statement misses the point. Rahmstorf is assuming that we must choose either nuclear power or renewables. But perhaps he should listen to the expert advice of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: their possible pathways towards capping the rise of global warming at 1.5°C assume that nuclear energy use more than doubles globally.
It is disheartening that even climate scientists like Rahmstorf are unwilling to engage with the facts, but the stubbornness of the contemporary German ruling class should not come as too much of a surprise: many of them came of age during the Cold War decades before 1990, when people often associated nuclear power with nuclear weapons and climate change was not yet a major issue: their rejection of nuclear technology is tied to the formative experiences of their youthful political engagement—and thus their sense of personal identity.
It is therefore unsurprising that people born after 1990, like me, are more open to nuclear energy—especially in the face of climate change and the imperative to cut carbon emissions. Although I still encounter a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation among my peers, I find that many of them can answer many of the objections raised by opponents of nuclear power. “What about the waste?” Let’s just build a good storehouse for it, just like the Americans and the Dutch are doing it. “What about safety?” Radiation is scary, but your concern is not grounded in the data. “Isn’t it too expensive?” Isn’t taking functioning nuclear power plants offline—or for that matter continuing to use the fossil fuels that accelerate climate change—too expensive?
When German opponents of nuclear power are confronted by these arguments, they tend to reply that reversing Germany’s phaseout isn’t feasible. A speaker on the German Fridays for Future programme recently acknowledged to me that the whole discussion was a “sham debate,” since nuclear power was politically dead in Germany. She may be right: Robert Habeck, the recently appointed German minister for the economy and climate, is currently populating his staff with supporters of Merkel’s energy transition, and he has implored the European Union to soften its environmental regulations so that more wind parks can be built.
Germany’s policies may also have an impact on the policies of other countries: the new German government has continued to lobby the European Commission to declare nuclear energy non-sustainable and to define natural gas as “green.” This initiative would severely undermine the fight against climate change and thus has rightly attracted the ire of France’s president, Emmanuel Macron. News has just broken that the commission has brokered a compromise and is now planning to give both nuclear and natural gas the green light.
Of course, most reasonable people agree that solar and wind power will have to be part of a future clean-energy mix to cover the rising energy demands of the global population. But, clearly, the debate over whether nuclear energy should also be part of the mix—at least for the foreseeable future—should now be over. Although it is politically hard to reverse course, we now know that Germany’s current path is misguided. In other countries, one hopes, the debate will not be about whether to use nuclear power, but on its long-term role: should it be a permanent part of our energy palette, or only a bridge between our abandonment of fossil fuels and the anticipated triumph of renewables? Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear power was a mistake, an insight that—tragically—may come too late. Other countries should not follow suit.