The earthquake that triggered the tsunami and led to serious accidents at several Japanese nuclear reactors also sent tremors through the German energy landscape. A few months later on June 30, the German Parliament committed with an overwhelming majority across party lines to permanently closing Germany’s nuclear power plants, which were deemed to pose unbearable risks.
Informed observers of German society will know that concerns about nuclear energy did not leap into the Germans’ mind with this tsunami, but continuously developed since the Chernobyl accident in 1986. Chernobyl had a deep impact on German perceptions of nuclear energy, and Fukushima only carried this sentiment to its extreme, prompting the government to respond quickly and comprehensively. Starting immediately with the oldest plants, the goal is to replace nuclear energy with renewables by 2022. But are German citizens really ready for such a tectonic shift?
Green energy will not come for free. The nuclear shut-down will cost the average German household anywhere between 17 and 175 euros annually, depending on the method of calculation. And as far as costs are concerned, this is only the beginning. For it is as certain as death and taxes that energy-intensive industry and trade will pass their additional costs to consumers. This also applies to the enormous cost for decommissioning the nuclear plants.
The majority of Germans, however, support the government’s decision and seem ready to carry the additional financial burden. That is quite remarkable for a nation that developed a bargain-hunter mentality during the last decades and favored the mushrooming of low cost supermarkets. It seems that being relieved from the Atomangst is solace enough.
Alas, for a country whose neighbors operate a significant number of nuclear plants, quitting nuclear energy to address one’s Atomangst remains an illusion. And clearly, non-Germans have difficulty understanding this phenomenon, let alone arriving at the same conclusions. In particular, Germany will have to demonstrate how to reconcile her ambitious goal with others that are no less ambitious: reaching carbon dioxide reduction targets and boosting electric vehicle development.
For a large minority, the impact of this nuclear about-face goes beyond cost. There will be those annoyed by the noise of onshore wind farms. Others will find the construction of offshore wind farms or pumped-storage hydroelectric plants a blemish on the natural landscape. The same could be said for the setup of biogas production facilities and 380 kW power grids, where concerns about unpleasant odors and health, respectively, could come into play.
But new power grids, in particular, are a sine qua non for leaving the nuclear energy era behind. New power grids are necessary to connect large-scale offshore wind parks, the main pillar of the future green energy concept, with Germany’s traditional energy consumption centres. Contrary to a widespread belief, these potent power grids must be above surface and cannot be buried underground at reasonable cost. There is no end to the cost issue, it seems, at least for those unfortunate enough to face a loss in property value by being so close to such a facility.
Meanwhile, interest groups are already getting ready to take action against the construction of the necessary facilities. Even small activist groups can cause major delays or even halt project planning and building permissions. Such “anti”-movements often prove very heterogeneous, as demonstrated by the protest movement against “Stuttgart 21”, the German Federal Railway’s project of a large intra-urban railway station. It will therefore be essential to bring on board those that support the nuclear phase-out in principle, but see their individual interests harmed in a very tangible manner.
At the heart of the debate, then, lies a conflict between what is socially desirable and individually acceptable. In all likelihood this will be resolved only if the government succeeds in changing ‘social desirability’ into ‘social commitment’. That calls for a timely communication strategy which, realistically, should also consider financial compensation for some who are affected by the production of new energy.
Birgit Hütten studied Japanology at the University of Bonn and received a scholarship from KEIO-University. She works in Brussels for an international organisation.