HAMBURG, Germany — Are the Germans irrational? Steven Pinker seems to think so. Professor Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, told the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel recently that if mankind wanted to stop climate change without stopping economic growth too, the world needed more nuclear energy, not less. Germany’s decision to step out of nuclear, he agreed, was “paranoid.”
My country has embarked on a unique experiment indeed. The Merkel government has decided to phase out both nuclear power and coal plants. The last German reactor is scheduled to shut down by the end of 2022, the last coal-fired plant by 2038. At the same time, the government has encouraged the purchase of climate-friendly electric cars — increasing the demand for electrical power. And despite efforts to save energy in the past decades, Germany’s power consumption has grown by 10 percent since 1990.
Skeptics fear that the country is on a risky path. Sufficient renewable energy sources might not be available in time to compensate for the loss of fossil and nuclear power. Though renewables account for around 40 percent of Germany’s electricity supply, there are limits to further expansion, for reasons that are political rather than technological.
In some rural parts of Germany, people are fed up with ever growing “wind parks”; more citizens are protesting new — and often taller — wind turbines in their neighborhoods. And there is growing resistance to the new paths needed to transport electricity from coasts to industrial centers. According to official calculations, close to 3,700 miles of new power lines are required to make Germany’s “Energiewende,” or energy revolution, work. By the end of 2018, only 93 miles had been built.
The plan risks more than a shortfall in supply. It could also prevent the country from dealing with climate change. By shutting down nuclear plants faster than those for coal, Germany may consign itself to dependence on fossil fuels, and all the damage to the climate they cause, for longer than necessary. Nevertheless, Germans’ opposition to nuclear power endures: 60 percent of them want to get rid of it as soon as possible.
Paranoia is not exactly the right word to describe the attitude behind these figures, though. Rather, it is the very German trait of freezing when faced with a dilemma. For a nation that is as keen as ours to do what would undoubtedly be considered good, choosing between two evils — here, nuclear power and climate change — is a nearly insurmountable task.
Nuclear energy, to start with, is ultimately not safe, and the Germans have always been particularly uneasy with it. After the nuclear accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan in 2011, Chancellor Angela Merkel ordered the “Atomausstieg,” the exit from nuclear energy once and for all. Why? Because, as Ms. Merkel put it back then: “The residual risk of nuclear energy can be accepted only if one is convinced that — as far as it is humanly possible to judge — it won’t come to pass.” After Fukushima, Ms. Merkel, a trained physicist, was no longer able to believe that a nuclear disaster would not occur. That there was a catastrophe even in a high-tech country like Japan made her change her mind.
But what about the near-certain catastrophic consequences of the second evil, climate change enhanced by coal-fired plants? Ms. Merkel recognized recently that “climate change is happening faster than we had thought a couple of years ago.” At the same time, she had to admit that Germany was struggling to fulfill the promises of the Paris climate accord: Despite new hopeful figures, the targeted 40 percent reduction of carbon emissions by the end of 2020 may not be met. One could argue that knowledge about the severity of climate change has deepened since 2011 and that countries should do everything they can to shift away from fossil fuels — yet there’s no sign that Ms. Merkel might change her mind about scrapping nuclear.
A return to nuclear appears to be completely unthinkable for the Green Party, the probable future coalition partner of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats. The Greens have their roots in the antinuclear movement of the early 1980s: Resistance against nuclear power is in the party’s DNA. But so is the fight against climate change.
Confronted with these competing convictions, the Greens seem to have no good answer. When Annalena Baerbock, the co-leader of the party, was asked on national television if the country should stick with nuclear power longer to allow a quicker shutdown of coal plants, she rejected the idea emphatically. “No one in this country wants nuclear waste buried in his neighbor’s garden,” she said.
That is certainly true. It is also true that nuclear energy enriches companies while shifting the risk of atomic waste and technological failure onto society. But this calculus is true for heavily carbon-dioxide-emitting coal power, too.
The tragedy about Germany’s energy experiment is that the country’s almost religious antinuclear attitude doesn’t leave room for advances in technology. Scientists in America, Russia and China believe that it is possible to run nuclear power plants on radioactive waste — which might solve the problem of how to store used fuel elements, one of the core arguments against nuclear. Certainly, these so-called fast breeder reactors have their dangers too. But as we transition to a completely renewable energy supply, wouldn’t they be a better alternative to coal and gas plants?
By shutting down its entire nuclear sector in a rush, Germany loses more opportunities than dangers. It forfeits the capacity to connect to a technology that might prove the safest and most climate-friendly mankind has yet seen. At the very least, using Germany’s existing nuclear plants would make an expeditious move away from fossil fuels possible.
Is it irrational not to do so? Maybe, maybe not. But letting this chance slip away could turn out to be one of the gravest mistakes of the Merkel era.
Jochen Bittner is a co-head of the debate section for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a contributing opinion writer.
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