Germany Kicks the Habit: No Nuclear Reactors by 2022
June 1, 2011
“For over 25 years we devoted ourselves to
peddling a product for which good work is irrelevant, because people can’t stop
themselves from buying it. A product that never improves, causes illness, and
makes people unhappy. But there was money in it. A lot of money.” (Mad Men)
How do you know when you’ve had enough? With addiction, usually there are warning
signs. The rewards no longer surpass the
drawbacks, the risks, and the loss. A
smoker notices a persistent cough. An
alcoholic can’t remember the night before.
Small, relentless wakeup calls.
It was much in this way that Germany decided to call it quits
with nuclear power. On Monday, May 30,
the fourth largest economy in the world said they are going to shut down all their
nuclear reactors by 2022 and transition to a clean, green economy. On Tuesday, I attended an event with the
Atlantic Council and Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies on nuclear power at which the German
ambassador to the US, Klaus Scharioth spoke at length about his country’s
decision. The phase out of nuclear power
had already begun in Germany in response to the growing public opinion shift
away from the technology. Germany
recently shut down 7 of the oldest reactors in the wake of Fukushima. They will not restore power to these reactors
and then turn off the rest by 2022.
Germany once had a ‘love affair’ with nuclear power. The government alone spent billions of marks
on nuclear research and development in its initial push.
But worrying signs began to crop up. Three Mile Island was
the first. Operator error they
said. We’ve learned so much since
then. Then Chernobyl. Germany suffered severe contamination. No milk for 4 weeks, no venison for 4 years. There
are still berries in German forests that aren’t safe to eat. The tide began to turn against nuclear in
public opinion. Still, they said, the
Soviet reactors were unsafe, the technology rotten, their regulations were
poor…it couldn’t possibly happen here.
But then Fukushima. No
one could say that Japan was technologically inferior or scarcely regulated. Japan is a first world economy with state of
the art technology. It came to the point
of simply acknowledging that some things are simply unmanageable. That safety cannot be ensured by engineering
and technical prowess alone.
In 2001, Germany began a significant push towards renewable
energy. Today they get about 17% of
their energy from renewables and have a credible plan to get 35% by 2020 and
80% by 2050. This kind of transition isn’t impossible. The biggest economy in Europe is taking the
steps to get themselves ‘clean’ in more than one way.
When are we going to give up our addiction to polluting
sources of power that pose grave public health threats? How many accidents is enough for the US to
give up the habit?