2009-02:The German Nuclear Phase-Out

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The German Nuclear Phase-Out

Dieses Interview führte ein kanadischer Anti-Atom-Aktivist mit unserem Redakteur Falk Beyer, der dort im Frühjahr Vernetzungsarbeit machte und Hintergrundrecherchen zur kanadischen Ölindustrie, Atomplänen in den Provinzen Alberta und Saskatchewan sowie über ein Kohleabbau-Vorhaben in Alaska vornahm. AktivistInnen der gerade entstehenden Anti-Atom-Bewegung in Kanada wollen dieses und weitere Interviews mit AktivistInnen aus Europa nutzen, um ihre eigenen Strategien zu entwickeln. Daher ist der Artikel in englischer Sprache verfasst. Er ist aber sicherlich auch für viele politisch interessierte Menschen in Deutschland interessant, da ein kritischer Blick auf die deutsche Atompolitik geworfen wird. Feedback und Kritik sind hier herzlich willkommen!

Question: Why did Germany decide to start pulling away from their dependence on nuclear energy?
Falk Beyer: Beforehand one remark: It seems that many people in many countries around the world have the impression that the fact that there is no possibility to construct a new nuclear power plant in Germany and that there is much resistance against any nuclear developments would depend on the government's decision to phase-out the German nuclear power plants. But it is the other way around: after decades of fights between nuclear industry, governments and the anti-nuclear movement the federal government changed its mind in 1998. They started to adopt a position that had already manifested itself as a reality: there was no way of establishing new nuclear power plants.

But: while the new government said they want to phase-out nuclear power the same parties approved the extension of the Uranium Enrichment Facility in Gronau to multiply the production of fuel for nuclear power plants. And the "Nuclear Consent" called peace treaty wasn't negotiated with an important player - the anti-nuclear movement. Eventually the nuclear phase-out was the product of the negotiations of the political parties (mainly the Social Democrats) and the main nuclear companies. Due to this fact the Nuclear Consent wasn't backed by an important force of the society. Some believe that including anti-nuclear NGOs in the treaty could have prevented to revoke the nuclear phase-out by a later government.

The challenge of dependency on only one or two energy sources was already known in Germany - the oil crisis of the 1970s showed that this dependency is dangerous. So at the beginning many supporters of the nuclear industry argued that nuclear power would help to gain more independence from oil etc. In later discussions the dependency on Uranium also became an aspect, and environmentalists argued that being dependent on certain (especially: non-renewable) energy sources is not good to supply the society's electricity demands.

But in the end the main reason for the change in policies was a political decision that was caused by the long-term and strong resistance against nuclear power in Germany.

Was this a political decision or was it brought about by anti-nuclear pressure?
Both. Since the 1970s a huge movement against nuclear power had been established in Germany. Besides all the "normal" small activities like information events, educational work, local actions etc., some big events took place and showed the anti-nuclear resistance of great parts of the population: there were several demonstrations against nuclear plants with some 100,000 people, as well as occupations of planned nuclear facilities with huge numbers of supporters. And, probably very important, there was a great diversity of different kinds of actions, strategies and ideas how to fight against nuclear power. Eventually this mixture of very different people and their ways to resist prevented several nuclear power plants from being constructed, being taken into operation, or being operated for more than a few months.

Some famous names of huge battles against nuclear power are the sites Wackersdorf, Brokdorf and Gorleben. The state was very pro-nuclear and wanted to push through their policy with nearly every means possible. They used riot police with tear gas, projectiles, water cannons and batons against protesters which were mostly peaceful at the beginning. There are even pictures of women with baby carriages being attacked by water cannons and tear gas. In many cases people fought back - the police violence caused the radicalization of many people. Many were injured during the battles, some died of police violence. The catastrophe in Chernobyl triggered off the establishment of new strong anti-nuclear movements in Germany. In many cases the nuclear companies gave up because of the long-term and powerful protests. In other cases politicians decided that it is politically impossible to enforce nuclear power (e.g. the planned Center for waste disposal in Germany that was proposed to include a reprocessing unit, fast breeder power station and other nuclear facilities).

In the 1990s the social movements lost their strength, this also applied to the anti-nuclear movements. But as it was a very strong movement before, it remained an important social issue with many groups, direct action and permanent educational work. Anyway, it didn't reach the old size and strength again. In the second half of the 1990s the movement grew again because of the first transports of high level radioactive waste to the temporary repository in Gorleben. By 2001 with every CASTOR (cask for the transport and storage of radioactive materials) transport the resistance became bigger. In 2001 some 20,000 people protested against the transport.

In 1998 the new government (after nearly two decades the Social Democrats formed a government again - together with the Green Party) decided Germany's nuclear phase-out. The nuclear topic was a major issue in the election campaigns of both parties, so they had to act upon it. But they didn't fulfill their promises: the so-called "abandonment of nuclear energy" was nothing more than an enactment of the actual political situation at this time. The new law said that no new nuclear power plants would be allowed to be constructed - but this was no new situation as it was clear that the resistance against such endeavours was too strong. It stressed that government policy decides about the use of nuclear energy and not the companies - this should go without saying. And it declared a moratorium for the proposed final disposal site in Germany of up to ten years - and this was no decision against the Gorleben site.

On the other hand, the nuclear phase-out law allowed the nuclear companies to produce a certain amount of electricity with the existing power plants and gave them a formal right to do so. The government committed itself not to try and stop the nuclear power stations earlier, especially not to use fiscal means (e.g. taxes on nuclear power) to restrict nuclear power. And the final disposal site "Schacht Konrad" was sacrificed (= the resistance of the parties against this project was stopped) in order to convince the nuclear industry to agree with the new law. Anyway, at the end of the day the nuclear phase-out law was no progress but full of concessions to the nuclear industry.

Nowadays the so-called German nuclear phase-out serves another issue: it works as a positive signal towards other countries and gives some backing to arguments against nuclear plans in Germany brought forth by certain interest groups including some political parties. Even if the context of this "phase-out" was not so positive at the time it was introduced, it is an important symbol for anti-nuclear resistance today.

Was the inability to dispose of high-level waste one of the reasons for abandoning nuclear?
The unsolved problem of nuclear waste disposal is an important argument against nuclear power. For this reason it will also have influenced the decision for the nuclear phase-out law. But the discussions were not so much about detail problems but about nuclear power in general. In my memory the issue was discussed as well-known that nuclear power is dangerous and that there are further problems such as the unsolved disposal of the waste (not only high level radioactive), destructive and indigenous people exploiting Uranium mining, proliferation etc.

Did the decision to abandon nuclear and pursue renewable energy occur at the same time?
It was connected with each other, somehow. Of course, renewable energy policies started long time before. Even the conservative government couldn't deny the importance and prospects of renewable sources and started a programme to sponsor those energies. It was called the "Energy Feed-In Law" and it stipulated certain amounts of money the electricity companies had to pay for power from renewable sources of private producers. So a fixed price was guaranteed for renewable energies and people could invest in this technology without high risks. The first renewable boom was triggered off by this law.

In 1998, when the Social Democrats and the Green Party formed the government (and introduced the "Nuclear Phase-Out Law") a new renewable energy law was established: the "Renewable Energy Law". It increased the support for renewable energies once more.

The phase-out policy required something like the renewable energy law, because it was clear that alternatives are necessary if the abandonment of nuclear energy was to be carried through with. So it was a logical consequence of the nuclear phase-out policy.

Anyway, the establishment of renewable energies was not the precondition for a nuclear phase-out policy. Both were caused by political pressure of the anti-nuclear movement in the decade before. Many anti-nuclear activists had early on demanded for substantial sponsoring of the use of renewable energy sources and many of them had campaigned for renewable energies or created first enterprises in this sector.

Did the majority of German people support getting rid of nuclear power?
A long time the majority of the population was anti-nuclear. But the governments and the industry ignored the public opinion and continued the pro-nuclear policy for a long time. When the government decided to make the nuclear phase-out official at the end of the last century, about 75 % of the population wanted a nuclear phase-out.

The government of Social Democrats and Green Party was in some ways a step backwards for the environmental scene as many people believed that everything will become good now and many environmental (and also anti-nuclear) activities stopped over the first years of the new government. Another consequence was that environmentalists saying that it's not enough what the government does were seen to be extremists - the public believed that the environmentalists already are in the government and that everyone who demands more was crazy or at least not serious.

It was a hard way for the movement to reconstitute and to develop critical positions towards the "green government's policy" and to gain strength again. Up to last year the public opinion towards nuclear power had become less clear anti-nuclear than before the nuclear phase-out policy, only a few more than 50 % wanted the abandonment of nuclear energy.

These days a clear majority of more than 70 % is anti-nuclear again. Caused was this development by the pro-nuclear propaganda of the conservative party that believed to make an election campaign with this topic. But the opposite occured: Many people understood that clear anti-nuclear positions are needed and made their stances like this.