The Post-Nuclear Transition

BERLIN – The Fukushima disaster in March reminded the world, 25 years after Chernobyl, that nuclear energy is anything but clean, secure, and affordable. Unfortunately, another nuclear catastrophe was needed to trigger a fresh debate on the use of nuclear power.

Germany’s decision in June to phase out nuclear power by 2022 has provoked irritation among its pro-nuclear neighbors. Other European countries have yet to indicate whether they will follow Germany’s example; a world free from nuclear energy is hard for its supporters to imagine. Europe’s economic and ecological future, however, depends upon the rising opposition to this high-risk technology, such as in Italy, where a recent referendum delivered a large popular majority against nuclear energy.

In Germany, the idea of a nuclear phase-out has been gaining support ever since the Chernobyl disaster. Over the past few decades, anti-nuclear activists, together with their political representatives in the Green Party, have succeeded in mobilizing hundreds of thousands of protesters. In 2000, growing political pressure finally led to a consensus between the German government and energy companies, which agreed to limit the life span of nuclear-power plants to 32 years.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government withdrew from this agreement in 2010, but Fukushima forced the authorities to reconsider – and to permanently end the use of nuclear energy. German energy policy now depends once more on the future deployment of renewable energy sources. The Renewable Energy Sources Act, for instance, introduced in 2000 by a Social Democrat-Green government, has enabled the country to exceed all growth expectations in the alternative-energy sector, which now accounts for 20% of Germany’s total electricity consumption.