BERLIN, Germany — When Germany’s newly elected conservative coalition recently declared that it would rescind the country’s phase-out of nuclear power, it served as the final death knell to the era of consensus presided over by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s previous “Grand Coalition.”
But the announcement was not a surprise: Energy policy was one of the few issues about which Merkel and her Christian Democratic party (CDU) spoke candidly during the campaign.
But, the announcement resonated deeply across Germany and has served as a rallying cry for activists who lay dormant during the past few years in search of a cause. With hundreds of independent anti-nuclear activist groups promising frequent and disruptive protests in the coming weeks — and already providing a preview by way of hundreds of hecklers dispatched to the new coalition negotiations — the country is bracing for a heated confrontation.
“The 17 nuclear plants in Germany are everything but safe,” said Jochen Stay from the anti-nuclear group “Ausgestrahlt,” one of the organizers of the protests at the coalition negotiations. “Whoever thinks about extending their use puts the lives and health of millions of people in jeopardy.”
Some conservatives are already worried that things may get out of hand. An executive of one of the country’s largest energy utilities has written a letter to the heads of the opposition Green Party in order to suggest that they meet in order to clear the air. “Certainly one of the things we should talk about is how we can avoid conditions in the country that resemble a civil war,” wrote Juergen Grossmann, head of RWE, according to the newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung.
The activists have a long and rich tradition to draw on. West Germany’s anti-nuclear movement of the late 1970s and 1980s is generally upheld as the country’s most effective and sustained example of civic engagement. The federal government in Bonn hadn’t been much interested in the dangers of nuclear energy until hundreds of thousands representing a diverse cross-section of the country came out in mostly rural areas to protest against — and, at times, physically prevent — the opening of local reactors and the depositing of nuclear waste.
Eventually, the demonstrators formed the basis of a new party, the Greens, that would, in a late 1990s coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD), proscribe by law the phase-out the country’s remaining 17 nuclear power plants by 2020. This is the law that Merkel now seeks to amend.
Today’s activists, like those from 30 years ago, have declared themselves independent of all the established parties, including the Greens. But, in their aims, style and composition, these activists are less a new social movement than a nostalgia-tinged continuation of an old one, complete with a logo borrowed from the previous era: a red, smiling sun set against a white background together with the words “No, thank you!” It’s a fitting instance of recycling, since in some sense, the old anti-nuclear movement never went away: Periodic clashes between protesters and police near the city of Gorleben, where Germany has disposed of nuclear material, have gone on uninterrupted since the 1970s.
Polls show that two-thirds of Germans support the current phase-out law and a broad spectrum of German society still sympathizes with the anti-nuclear movement. A pre-election march in Berlin that attracted tens of thousands to the capital attested to that support. The rally provided diverse tableaus of university students together with civil servants, grey-haired former hippies aside middle-aged farmers atop tractors. They all share memories of the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island and the repeated Cold War warnings that the world may end in a nuclear apocalypse, as well as of more recent revelations that the German government under Chancellor Helmut Kohl had manipulated and falsified safety reports of a few of the country’s nuclear plants.
Indeed, Merkel is aware that following through on her plans will require making a hefty withdrawal from the sizable sum of political capital that she’s accumulated over the past four years. During the election campaign, her CDU party tried to prime the country by arguing that Germany couldn’t yet afford to make the switch away from nuclear power, which comprises nearly a quarter of the country’s energy consumption, according to a report by the German Institute for Economic Research.
While the rival SPD asserted that investments in renewable solar and wind power could make up the difference, Merkel said that Germany shouldn’t risk falling behind the economies of France and Britain, both of which have renewed commitments to nuclear energy. She has also argued that nuclear energy produces fewer climate-damaging emissions than coal, Germany’s main fuel alternative.
However convinced she is of the merits of nuclear energy, Merkel has also made sure to temper the plans of the more business-friendly and conservative voices in her new coalition. The coalition agreement emphasizes that keeping the 17 power plants open will be contingent upon their meeting the most stringent safety criteria of the European Union. The new coalition will also demand that a large percentage of the windfall profits that energy companies are expected to make from the continued operation of the nuclear plants be invested into renewable energy sources. “Nuclear energy should be a bridge technology,” said Marcus Soeder, one of Merkel’s representatives at the coalition negotiations.
The activists don’t seem much impressed by Merkel’s assurances. After meeting last month, representatives from the largest groups promised more unannounced demonstrations to block the transport of nuclear material and to otherwise disrupt the work of Merkel's new coalition.