Jacob Heilbrunn

The Greening of Germany: Abandoning Nuclear Power

 Has Germany gone nuts? Or is it a trailblazer, a pioneer of where the rest of the world needs to go? Chancellor Angela Merkel has made the call to jettison nuclear power by 2022. Meanwhile, France is applauding its neighbor and continuing to rely on nuclear power. In Eastern Europe new nuclear power plants will be going up as well.

Until a few months ago Merkel was resisting abandoning nuclear power. Now, in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, her resistance has melted away. She has had a political conversion. Germans, at least the elites, don't like nuclear power. They never have. "Atomic power? Nein Danke!" has been the German motto at least since the 1970s. In Germany the radical left mutated in the 1960s into an enironmentalist one. Then by the early 1980s it was scoring successes in the form of the Green Party, which shook up the old Bonn establishment by, among other things, walking into parliament wearing Birkenstocks and shunning coats and ties, at least among the men. The big issue back then was called Waldsterben—the alleged death of the German forests.

Then, in the 1990s, the major political parties, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, began to emulate the Greens. They became pro-environment. The only pro-business party was, and remains, the Free Democrats, who espouse a form of classical liberalism. Merkel's decision to give the heave-ho to nuclear power is the ultimate sign of what might be called the Greening of Germany.

In many ways, Germany has profited from its embrace of environmental initiatives. It's managed to implement energy-efficient measures and it's built an industry around solar power and the like. Behind Merkel's move is the notion that she can provide a further spur to growth in this sector, as Berlin editor Malte Lehming, in an unabashed tribute to Merkel, notes today. But German industry, as the Wall Street Journal notes, is perturbed by Merkel's move:

 

Germany's electricity prices, which have more than doubled in the past decade, are a sensitive issue for industry, whose domestic sites consume nearly 50% of the country's electricity.

Currently, Germany derives 42.4% of its energy supply from coal-fired plants, but phasing out nuclear power, which now makes up nearly 23% of the country's energy supply, could force it to rely more on coal.

 

This decision will have implications for America as well which continues to have nuclear weapons stationed on German soil (you can bet your last Euro that the pressure will increase for a withdrawal of atomic weapons, an issue that the Free Democrats raised in the last general election). But can a modern industrial country really be powered by the sun and wind alone? Germany is about to test the proposition, or it's going to pretend to as it ramps up its reliance on coal, the dirtiest energy source of all. This is the face of the new unilateralist Germany, which is fleeing back into its utopian dreams.