I’ve been on the road this week and haven’t had much time to study current events in Japan. I have been thinking about and talking with folks about some of the reactions around the world regarding Nuclear Power. The one most people are still buzzing about is Angela Merkel’s decision to abandon nuclear power in Germany. Last night I finally put on my cynical spectacles and looked at what is happening there in that light.
This was an extremely cagey move by Fr. Merkel’s government. She had been walking away from the government policy of nuclear shutdown since she became Prime Minister. She needed a low cost energy source to keep factories running while meeting Germany’s carbon mandates. This move, while practical from an economic and climate change perspective, was increasingly unpopular with the Green Party members of her ruling coalition. When the events in Fukushima unfolded, massive demonstrations made it clear that the Green Party had some political clout that could have forced her out of the PM chair.
There were a number of steps to the process, but ultimately, Germany has announced that they plan to be nuclear free by 2022. It is interesting to look at this decision and think about different future scenarios. When I did that, I realized how brilliant Fr. Merkel was in this maneuver.
First Scenario: It works!
Germany finds other energy sources, puts in the required transmission lines and maintains low cost energy to compete in the world market. Merkel’s government is the hero of the climate change, but anti-nuclear power, crowd. She will be hailed as a visionary and her government retains power in Germany for years to come.
Second Scenario: An utter failure…
Germany is unable to build needed transmission lines, or obtain power from acceptable sources. Come winter, Russia imposes massive prices for natural gas and cuts supply. Germany is facing rolling black-out and brown-outs. Companies are shut down and unemployment starts to rise. Merkel’s government rides to the rescue by turning to the shutdown nuclear power plants. She is once again the hero for having the fore-sight to keep those plants in her back pocket to maintain low carbon footprints while providing low cost energy.
The Green Party is annoyed, but the Germans were facing a cold, dark winter with no job. She rides into power yet again. She can defer the issue for a number of years by reminding voters about the close call.
Third Scenario: Somewhere in between…
Germany is forced to purchase power from the French nuclear plants and the Czech Coal plants while northern Germany argues with southern Germany about transmission lines and power sharing. She still wins. The nasty carbon problem is in the Czech republic, not Germany. The nasty nuclear plants are in France, not Germany. And the local members of parliament are the ones who face the infrastructure issues.
So, for Fr. Merkel, there was literally NO downside in making what appeared at first blush, to be a very risky decision to abandon nuclear so quickly. To be sure, other European governments are angry and frustrated with Germany’s unilateral decision that could put significant pressure on their resources, but other EU governments don’t elect her, the people of Germany do. She has shut the plants down, but not required an immediate dismantling of them.
If the need arises, she will be able to demand a fairly quick restart. Either way, she looks responsive to the people’s needs and desires. As Germany heads into the summer, electricity needs are lower and the lack of power from those plants already shutdown is more easily managed. By the time she may need to start them back up, the issues in Japan will be many months further down the road with significantly more information. Her ability to justify the needs and demonstrate the differences will help to defuse the political heat.
As much as I hate to see those plants shut down, I have to applaud her astute reading of the situation.