The latest casualty of the rising cost of energy is one of Europe's most persistent political taboos: Germany's striking aversion to nuclear power. Nowhere else did the opposition to atomic energy become as deeply embedded in the cultural and political DNA of a nation. Many citizens now in their 40s and 50s came of age protesting nuclear power in the 1970s and '80s. A generation of Green and Social Democrat (SPD) politicians built careers out of their total opposition to nukes—the Green party was antinuclear even before it became environmentalist. The movement reached its climax in 2001, when Parliament passed an "atomic-exit law" to shut down the country's then 19 reactors by approximately 2021. Two have already been decommissioned. As countries around the world began reinvesting in nuclear energy, thanks to growing worries over energy security and climate change, Germans held fast to the atomic-exit law and their quasi-religious belief in the evils of nukes.
But the energy business has changed dramatically since the Germans passed their law, and German attitudes are finally catching up. The world is now more worried about climate change than a repeat of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident. Growing fuel imports from an assertive Russia and an unstable Middle East have turned energy into a security issue. But what really got Germans to rethink was their pocketbooks. When the Bundestag passed the exit law, oil cost less than $20 a barrel—one sixth its cost in early August. Now that Germans are pinching euros to pay their surging electricity bills, more of them have decided it makes no sense to shut off the source of 25 percent of their power—the relic of a nuclear building boom launched after the first oil shock in 1973, amid energy worries strikingly similar to today's. In a recent poll, an unprecedented 54 percent of Germans say they want to keep the reactors up and running, up from 40 percent as recently as December. As a result, what had long seemed unlikely has started to happen: a fresh public debate over nukes.
In June, parliamentarians in Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic party published a proposal to drop the exit law and build more plants, promising to make cheap nuclear energy an issue for next year's national election. Even in the SPD, dissident voices are getting louder. Prominent figures like ex-chancellor Helmut Schmidt and former Economics minister Wolfgang Clement have called on their party to rethink their energy policy. "It's enormous," says Dieter Marx, director of Atomforum, Germany's nuclear operators association. "We've been completely surprised by the shift in opinion." At this year's annual meeting in Hamburg, he says, only 15 protesters showed up.
In addition to high energy prices, part of the reassessment can be traced to pressure from Germany's neighbors. Germany's virtually unilateral veto of carbon-free nukes was getting ever tougher to square with the country's self-styled role as a global environmental leader. At the G8 talks on energy security in Tokyo earlier this summer, Merkel was the odd person out, opposing a call on countries to use nuclear energy as one way of cutting emissions. France, which generates 80 percent of its electricity from nukes and has one of the lowest per capita emission rates of any developed country, has just announced construction of its 61st reactor—and doesn't see why it should be obliged to shift to expensive wind and solar power like Germany. In July, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for the construction of eight new reactors in the United Kingdom over the next 15 years to help build what he calls "the post-oil economy."
Italy's Silvio Berlusconi has promised to reverse a phaseout similar to Germany's, just as Sweden suspended its phaseout in 2005. In line with a rapid change in Swedish public opinion, the government reasoned that avoiding emissions that cause climate change must come ahead of nuclear decommissioning. Even the International Energy Agency, of which Germany is a member, has called for a triple-pronged strategy to fight climate change: efficiency improvements, a switch to renewable energy and the construction of 1,300 new nuclear power plants worldwide.
If Germany—Europe's biggest consumer of energy—joins the shift toward nukes, it would make it far likelier that the EU can slow down, or even reverse, its growing dependence on Russia. But what makes the change in Germany so delicate to navigate is its own complex, internal, consensus-driven politics. The SPD, the junior partner in Merkel's coalition government, has steadfastly blocked any attempt to loosen the ban on new plants enacted when it was in power. Its veto power over any change to the phaseout law means it remains in place, though the power companies have used temporary shutdowns to extend the life of their oldest reactors until after the 2009 election—when they hope Merkel will head a more nuke-friendly coalition.
Merkel, whose modus operandi is to avoid open conflict, has pledged her adherence to the status quo until after the election. The government's own Council of Environmental Advisors, which is supposed to develop Germany's long-term environmental strategy, talks about everything—except nuclear energy. Miranda Schreurs, a council member who directs the Environmental Policy Research Center at Berlin's Free University, says the debate has started to become a more rational one, but centers only on the life extension of currently operating plants. Despite the emboldened CDU parliamentarians, building new reactors is still a nonstarter for most Germans. Merkel herself has ruled out new construction. "The old taboo is still there," says Schreurs.
Even more complicated is the SPD's position. The SPD's Environment minister, Sigmar Gabriel, clings to wildly ambitious numbers for the use of wind and solar power to replace both nuclear energy as well as coal, which has lately also become a target of environmental protests. Any new debate over nuclear energy is seen by the SPD leadership as yet another threat to party unity at a time when masses of members and voters are abandoning the SPD for the far-left Linkspartei; an early August Forsa poll had the SPD at a historic low of 22 percent. Divisions are emerging already. In August, an SPD arbitration commission voted to expel Clement from the party, describing his attack on a fellow party member for her antinuclear policy as "damaging behavior."
The situation remains frozen at least until after next year's election. But the sudden change in mood proves that even for hyperenvironmentalist Germans, their emotional convictions aren't immune to the reality that nuclear energy cuts both CO2 and the bill for imported fuel. With the SPD imploding and Merkel's chances of getting her coalition of choice with the Free Democrats growing ever so slowly, the day when Germany drops its plan to kill its nukes is getting a little closer.