Angela Merkel's decision to phase out nuclear power stations is a cynical exercise in realpolitik, says Daniel Johnson.
'Politics is the art of the possible," said Bismarck, the first German Chancellor. His present-day successor, Angela Merkel, knows perfectly well that her decision to phase out all nuclear power stations by 2022 makes no scientific or economic sense. In fact, she said so herself as recently as two months ago, when she promised that Germany would not let itself be rushed into abandoning nuclear power by the Fukushima accident in Japan. "I am against shutting down our nuclear power plants only to have atomic power imported into Germany from other countries," she told the Bundestag in March. "That won't happen on my watch."
Well, as so often happens to politicians, she has been forced to eat her words by political necessity. An irrational fear of nuclear energy runs deep in Germany, and electoral defeats for Chancellor Merkel's conservative coalition at the hands of the Greens have convinced her that it is no longer politically possible to hold the line. As Bismarck might also have said: saying no to nuclear technology may be unreal, but in Germany it is realpolitik.
The nuclear debate in Germany has always been about much more than the relative merits of different forms of power generation. The enduring influence of romanticism, the love of forests and the worship of nature all contribute to the highly charged atmosphere in which the issue is discussed. The Nazis knew how to tap into this nature mysticism, yet they also secretly pursued nuclear weapons – despite publicly dismissing the "Jewish" physics on which the technology was based.
Unlike Japan, Germany surrendered before atom bombs could be used against its cities, but during the Cold War the nation was divided by the Berlin Wall and Germans knew that their country was a potential nuclear battleground. American, British and French forces on German soil were equipped with nuclear weapons to deter a Warsaw Pact invasion. While Konrad Adenauer, West Germany's postwar leader, was desperate to join this nuclear club, his Nato allies only permitted Germany to possess nuclear power, on which the resurgent German economy rapidly became dependent for cheap energy.
At first, nuclear power was seen as peaceful, in contrast to nuclear weapons. But as anti-Americanism emerged on the German Left as a by-product of the 1968 student rebellions, so too did resistance to nuclear power as a symbol of capitalism, which was now equated with militarism.
In the mid-1970s, so-called citizens' initiatives began to organise protests at nuclear plants. Their symbol, a laughing sun with the sloganAtomkraft? Nein Danke ("Nuclear power? No thanks!"), appeared on stickers and T-shirts everywhere. Anti-nuclear protest was suddenly cool.
Hence by the late 1970s, German public opinion was turning against nuclear power. Belatedly, the far-Left leaders of the student movement capitalised on this popular cause to create the Greens, the world's first major environmentalist political party. The terrorism of the Baader Meinhof gang had turned out to be a dead end, but the politics of anti-nuclear protest had a lasting appeal to middle-class Germans. In the propaganda of the Greens, Nato Cruise and Pershing missiles stationed in Germany were indistinguishable from the plants that produced cheap electricity.
Then came Chernobyl. The meltdown of an antiquated Soviet reactor in 1986 caused such hysteria in Germany that the nuclear industry has never recovered, despite the fact that fears of radioactive clouds proved greatly exaggerated. Green politics gained new momentum: "Red-Green" coalitions of Social Democrats and Greens began to be formed in the German states and eventually, in 1998, Greens took office at federal level, too.
By this time climate change had taken over as the fashionable new cause for environmentalists, bringing with it the problem of how, without fossil fuels or nuclear power, energy supplies could be maintained. Despite its promise to close down all nuclear plants, the coalition of Social Democrats and Greens had no alternative policy, because "renewables" simply could not provide sufficient cheap, reliable energy. After Merkel took over in 2005 as leader of a coalition with the Social Democrats, she quietly reversed plans to phase out nuclear power. Even today, domestic nuclear plants supply about a quarter of all electricity in Germany.
Now, however, she has taken an irreversible decision to distance her Christian Democrats from a political association that is far more toxic than any nuclear fallout. In doing so, she has succumbed yet again to the hypocrisy that surrounds this issue in Germany.
Take Iran. For decades, German industry has assisted Iran's "peaceful" pursuit of nuclear power, even though it has been obvious that the Islamic Republic's aim was to develop nuclear weapons. The computers that ran the Iranian nuclear facilities until they were sabotaged by the Stuxnet virus were supplied by Siemens. At international conferences, Germany adopts a high-minded stance on nuclear proliferation as well as nuclear power, but in practice German exports take priority over the security of Israel and other neighbours of Iran.
Or take France. In public, President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel are diametrically opposed on the nuclear power issue. But in reality, her decision to get out of the nuclear power business means that France will be supplying a growing proportion of German energy needs over coming decades. Most Germans are either unaware of the fact that much of their energy is imported from French, Swiss or Polish nuclear plants, or they just don't care, as long as the reactors are sited far from their own back yards. Germany has become a nation of nuclear nimbys.
So should it matter to us if Germany chooses to impose unnecessary costs on its own industrial and domestic energy consumption? Germany is the largest economy in Europe and the European Union has a habit of imposing German prejudices on the rest of its member states. Enemies of nuclear energy will be emboldened to pressurise other governments, including our own, to follow the German lead.
Ironically, not all Greens share the conclusion the German government drew from Fukushima. Our own George Monbiot, a Green fundamentalist if ever there was one, has been persuaded to drop his opposition to nuclear power by the facts of the case. This is his logic: if an ageing nuclear plant, incompetently managed and with obsolete safeguards, is hit by one of the worst earthquakes in recent history, yet hardly anybody is killed, then we must conclude that nuclear power has a lot to be said for it.
Logic, however, had little to do with yesterday's announcement: realpolitik dictated the decision. The grandchildren of the Nazis, born long after the war, have made the fatal mistake of identifying evil with a particular technology, rather than with the human beings who make use of it.
Germany is one of the most admirable countries in the world, but Germans, like other nationalities, are not immune to irrational attitudes. Decent Germans have reason to worry about the fact that, according to a recent poll, nearly half of their compatriots express anti-Semitic opinions, such as that Israel is conducting a war of extermination against Palestinians, or that "Jews try to take advantage of having been victims during the Nazi era".
But Germans have no reason to fear nuclear power. Mrs Merkel's appeasement of nuclear hysteria is disturbing far beyond Germany's borders because it represents a capitulation to irrationalism by the leader of a nation that once led the world in science and technology. The land of Leibniz and Humboldt, of Goethe and Gauss, is now indulging the fantasies of cynical scaremongers.