There should be no doubt that the decision by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to pull the plug on the German nuclear programme is in no way based on safety, economic or technology issues. It is purely and simply an exercise perpetrated to save her political neck.
Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party is in a power-sharing coalition in Germany, but has suffered a mauling in recent local elections and its viability as a ruling party looked bleak. Needing the support of the Green Party to shore up its political future, it decided to leap into bed with them by calling a halt to the German nuclear industry. Come 2022 all German nuclear facilities will be off line, but this revelation is not new to the European giant.
When Merkel came into power in 2005, the outgoing government had a plan in place to end German nuclear power industry by 2022. Sound familiar? After economic and technological studies, Merkel reversed the decision and moved nuclear power to the heart of German energy policy.
They say a year is a long time in politics, but it seems that six months is more than enough time for a key policy to find its way into the Bundestag shredder. The political setbacks, allied with the nuclear accident in Japan, has changed the public opinion in Germany and heralded this about turn.
The move certainly has no financial foundations. Nuclear power stations currently generate almost a quarter of Germany’s electricity and a move away from these is expected to increase electric bills by around 30 per cent and put a dent in the country’s global warming targets, with carbon emissions expected to rise by ten per cent.
It will also harm the country’s manufacturing heartland and could push energy intensive companies, such as those in the chemical or automotive sectors, to seek cheaper locations in either Poland or Eastern Europe.
The safety of the German nuclear sector is second to none, with not a single fatality laid at its door. As a TV commentator quipped earlier this week, cucumbers have killed more people in Germany than nuclear accidents. The safety argument is also negated by the fact that Germany’s borders are pressing ahead with nuclear power. As the Fukushima accident has made all too clear, nuclear pollution respects no geographical boundaries.
But this decision, although ill conceived, could have dramatic implications for the German renewable sector. To fill the gap left by nuclear energy, Germany is planning to generate 35 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Hand in hand with its withdrawal from the nuclear industry comes a huge raft of investments into renewable technology that will almost certainly propel the country to the head of the renewable technology tree. The type of investment that the United States and UK have shied away from because it makes no economic sense will now happen because of political expediency.
And although that may be a laudable outcome, Germany would have been far better served by using that sort of investment to curb is veracious appetite for fossil fuels, which currently account for almost half of its electricity generation.
Outside of Germany the nuclear renaissance will continue with France, China, UK, South Korea and Russia all likely to continue with their new build plans. Who knows; if the political landscape in Germany changes, then economic practicalities may cause another about turn, such is the nature of politics.