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Germany Kicks the Habit: No Nuclear Reactors by 2022

Posted by Morgan Pinnell on 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?

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