Like a lot of people, I view the German nuclear phaseout with a mixture of disbelief and amusement. The phaseout is ostensibly because the Fukushima situation in Japan supposedly demonstrates the danger of nuclear power—even though, eighty some-odd days in, we’re still waiting for the very first nuclear casualty.
But that is, of course, not what this is about. This is all about the composition of Germany’s government. In that government, which is a coalition, the anti-nuclear Green party holds enough influence to lean on the lead coalition partner. The German Greens’ organizing principle appears based on a willful inability to tell the difference between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. Combined with the casual anti-Americanism that became fashionable in western Europe during the latter part of the Cold War, the anti-nuclear force turned into a political movement with deep roots.
Not much of a surprise, then, that the headline hysteria over Fukushima was like a jolt of caffeine to this movement.
But that is not the whole explanation. The Greens were instrumental in enshrining the nuclear phaseout into German law during the time of Gerhard Schroeder’s chancellorship. Schroeder came to power in 1998 via a coalition with the same Greens. His inaugural address to the German lower house of parliament outlined his plan for the phaseout. You can see his Green partners’ hand in this passage:
[a] national nuclear disposal plan to be developed We, our neighbours, and our offspring will continue to have the problem of the disposal of radioactive waste for millennia. The previous disposal concept has failed in substance. Instead, we will develop a national disposal plan. Source: BBC
But what really drove the Green determination to push for the nuclear phaseout was another, totally unrelated, event that took place during the 1990s. That event was the Yugoslav civil war. Most people remember the sheer ugliness of that conflict: ethnic cleansing, concentration camps, and the largest massacres of civilians since the Second World War. From the outset, there was massive pressure on western governments, including Germany, to intervene. But it took three years of atrocities before the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was galvanized into military action to force one side, the Bosnian Serbs, to the negotiating table. The seminal event leading to NATO intervention was the massacre at Srebrenica in July 1995, in which 8,000 Muslim men and boys were machine gunned.
Four years later, another ethnic conflict flared up in the now-former Yugoslavia: Kosovo. When it became apparent that another bout of ethnic cleansing was imminent, NATO again intervened, by way of a two-month bombing campaign against Serbia. The NATO action was by consensus among NATO members.
And nowhere was the debate over intervening in Kosovo more ferocious than in Germany. By then the Greens had ascended to high levels in the national government. Their leader, Joschka Fischer, was Schroeder’s foreign minister. Under intense pressure both from within Germany and from NATO (i.e., the Clinton Administration), Fischer was forced to abandon the dream-world pacificism that characterized the pre-power Green outlook and actually take a decision in the real world. With extreme reluctance, and holding his nose, he persuaded the Greens to support Schroeder and go along with NATO.
The bombing campaign worked. Thousands of Kosovo Muslim lives were saved.
But Fischer never got over his trauma at having been forced into that horrible real world decision. He and the Greens therefore doubled down on the nuclear phaseout. They went the extra mile to make sure Schroeder lived up to his early promises to get rid of atomic power in Germany.
All that was made moot when Angela Merkel’s party won the federal election in 2005. Merkel initially had no patience for the phaseout. She actually reversed it.
But then Fukushima made that moot. The Greens, still smarting from the Kosovo trauma, seized their opportunity. The German masses, fueled with media hysteria and unable to distinguish “info” from “tainment” in media coverage of Fukushima, gave the Greens their support. Merkel crumbled. Hence Germany’s third U-turn on nuclear energy.
Ironically, the man most responsible for the Srebrenica massacre, Ratko Mladic, is in today’s headlines. Mladic was the general who led Bosnian Serb forces through the darkest days of the Yugoslav civil war. He was the one who commanded the troops who murdered the 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica (he personally had assured the men and boys they were in safe hands and persuaded them to board the buses that carried them to their execution). That’s what brought NATO into the Bosnian conflict, and thereby set the precedent for the NATO action over Kosovo in 1999.
The German nuclear industry is paying the price for the Green agreement to participate in Kosovo. In the grand sweep of history, you can say the German nuclear industry’s payment is just the price of saving lives. Of course it’s a price worth paying. But Germany, if it could for a moment transcend its wishy washy internal politics, will see that the nuclear phaseout is just a terrible economic and environmental decision.
In the mean time, until Germany’s fourth U-turn on nuclear, France’s nuclear utility, EDF, will make lots of money selling nuclear power to Germany. Germany needs electricity, after all.