Japan Nuclear Disaster Triggers Political Frenzy in Germany

Demonstrators in Germany carry a banner that translates
Image: Green Party of Nordrhein-Westfalen

Last Autumn, the German government announced plans to extend the lives of most of the nuclear power plants in Germany, by changing a law that limited the lifespan to a significantly shorter period than safety experts believe necessary.

Today, in the wake of the terrible events in Japan, it is clear that the separate explosions in two units at the troubled Fukushima nuclear complex will have political fallout in Germany.

Nuclear Demonstrators and Headlines: Time to Think Again

The German headlines seem unanimous. Along with their nuclear-dependent French neighbors, German demonstrators are taking to the streets against nuclear.

"Nobody can simply continue," tops a commentary by a Green Party leader in Baden-W├╝rttemberg, Winfried Kretschmann, in the Tagespiegel.

Kretschmann concludes: "In the end, nuclear power is a risky technology that mankind cannot master." The Spiegel calls events in Germany "Merkel's Nuclear Accident." Even in the economic pages, the nuclear troubles in Japan are having ripple effects as eco-power company stocks have rocketed up 32%.

German Chancellor Announces Moratorium on Nuclear Plant Extensions

But the real heart of the story is behind headlines like those in Die Welt, featuring Merkel announcing a turn-about in nuclear policy.

The Chancellor made a strong political statement by saying that Germany will place a three-month moratorium on lifespan extensions. Technically, Merkel does not have the power to overturn the law, already passed in Parliament, which allows the extensions. But she certainly has the political clout to ensure that no extensions are granted under the law, until after the dust settles and a clearer view of the incidents still ongoing in Japan becomes available.

Politics As Usual

Fundamentally, the story has much more to do with politics than with nuclear safety. The original limits were virtually unavoidable, as lifespan limits helped clear the approvals to build the facilities by minimizing fears about reactor safety.

When extensions were broached, many in the public cried "foul," believing that the original commitment to limits could not be reversed. But, under a modern looking-glass, the extensions were virtually inevitable, as shutting down nuclear plants means increased fossil fuel use at a time when the risks of greenhouse gases have begun to offset the risks of radioactivity in the public eye, and more importantly, in governmental commitments to reducing global warming emissions.

Safety As Usual

Behind the politics, there is the reality. From the point of view of a technically-minded safety expert, the course decided by Merkel makes perfect sense. It is standard in industry after any significant incident to take a pause and carefully study the causes, the effects, the response. Safety experts seek to extract any lessons, and to apply what is learned to existing and new facilities. There will certainly be much to learn out of the incidents in Japan. Perhaps some of those lessons will change the expert opinions on extending the life of plants in Germany.

Perhaps the public also needs time to come to grips with the scope of the nuclear incidents in Japan, and with the ultimate outcome of the situation.

From the newest reports, it is clear that the nuclear fuel rods are critically hot; and there are unconfirmed reports of containment damage. Radiation emissions increased briefly pursuant to a cooling pond fire, which has now been extinguished. Only time, and the heroic efforts of those on the front line of the incidents in Japan, will determine the ultimate outcome.

When the dust settles, and evaluations begin on the extent of lives affected, health implications, and environmental consequences are well underway, we need to sit down for a rational discussion about energy.

We need to talk about how quickly we can curb our insatiable appetites for energy, and how quickly we can begin to meet those needs with renewables. Somewhere in between those two calculations, we need to talk about the risks of nuclear energy, but also about the risks of petroleum, and the risks of coal.

More on the Nuclear Incidents in Japan

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Nuclear Reactions To Japan's Crisis From Around The World

Japan Nuclear Disaster Triggers Political Frenzy in Germany
Last Autumn, the German government announced plans to extend the lives of most of the nuclear power plants in Germany, by changing a law that limited the lifespan to a significantly shorter period than safety

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