Like a modern day Saint Paul, the Chancellor Angela Merkel -- the ‘former high priestess of nuclear power’ according to Der Spiegel -- has been converted to a champion of renewable energy.
Germany’s coalition government has announced that all the country’s nuclear power plants will be phased out by 2022. After the crisis at Fukushima, Chancellor Merkel ordered a review of nuclear energy. On May 30th the panel recommended that the seven oldest reactors -- which had already been taken offline for a safety review -- should never be used again. An eighth plant -- the problem-plagued Krümmel facility in northern Germany – is to be shut down as soon as possible. The country’s nine other nuclear power plants will be switched off within a decade.
The move restores the decision of the previous German government -- a coalition of the centre-left SPD and the Greens -- to end the country’s reliance on nuclear power. It’s a decision which pleases the vast majority of Germans.
At first Germany seemed to have overreacted to the Fukushima crisis. Nuclear angst swept the country as if a tsunami were about to wash out of the Baltic. Support for the Greens surged in a number of elections and the governing centre-right coalition seemed as useful as spent nuclear fuel rods. A grim-faced Chancellor faced the nation and spoke of a ‘watershed for the whole world’. She said, ‘Everything must be placed under review. There must be no taboos’. To many her comments looked like political posturing.
Three months on, the reborn Chancellor now speaks of Germany setting an example for the world.
‘We believe that we as a country can be a trailblazer for a new age of renewable energy sources,’ she said a few days ago. ‘We can be the first major industrialised country that achieves the transition to renewable energy with all the opportunities -- for exports, development, technology, jobs -- it carries with it.’
The transition will be a huge challenge, but it’s the sort of challenge at which Germany excels. Today nuclear power supplies almost a quarter of the country’s energy needs. As the atom plants are shut down, electricity consumption will need to be cut or imported from neighbours (expect a generation of new natural gas plants plus more puffing, coal-fired power stations in the Czech Republic and Slovakia). As Germany’s vast wind farms are in the Baltic and North Sea, and most of the heavy industry is in the south, a huge energie autobahn will need to be built through the forested heart of the country. And the country’s reliance on Russian gas and Saudi oil, with the political dependence that entails, will make for some nervous moments in the coming decades.
But Germany is now advancing boldly toward being a green power – wind, tide and solar energy – by 2050. The decision to end its reliance on nuclear power will further motivate German industry to be the market leader. As both a trained scientist and an astute politician, Chancellor Merkel has taken a responsible – if premature -- step toward a nuclear-free future, and in the process told German industry to get even further ahead of the game.
The decision even raises the possibility of a future alliance between her centre-right CDU party and the Greens. Now who would have dreamed of that three months ago? It’s nothing short of a Biblical miracle.