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Germany's determination

February 16, 2015

Japan Political Pulse: Germany's rock-hard commitment to nuclear phase-out


Germany's nuclear power phase-out has reached a point of no return.

On a Japan National Press Club tour of Europe earlier this month, I had the opportunity to speak extensively with energy transition experts in Berlin. There, the head of the economics and environment department at left-leaning daily newspaper Die Tageszeitung asked me how Germany's energy transition was being received in Japan.

I showed him copies of articles from monthly and weekly Japanese magazines declaring Germany's nuclear phase-out a massive failure. He immediately asked me why the effort was being characterized as a mistake. The articles said that electricity prices would rise, preventing significant progress in the energy shift, I told him.

The argument was a boilerplate used by those opposed to energy transition, he asserted, explaining that Germany had, in fact, seen an increase in renewable energy that has helped bring electricity costs down for major corporations. Plus, home electricity costs constitute just a small portion of household expenditures, he said.

But the Japanese articles said the energy transition was a policy that benefitted the wealthy with the means to purchase renewable energy equipment, while placing a great burden on the poor, I continued.

He countered that energy transition was not to blame for poverty. To say so would be like saying that a public transportation system was faulty just because bus fares went up. According to him, there's an understanding among those involved in the energy transition that no one's ever done it before, but it has to be done. He explained that Germany is a wealthy country with excellent technology, and has a sense of duty to go a step ahead of other countries to change. We need to understand that the transition is based on this consensus before we bring up electricity prices, he said.

I also interviewed a state secretary of the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, industry associations, and major utility experts, but I got no sense that underneath all the pro-phase-out rhetoric, they actually wanted to revert to nuclear power. I also found no conservative newspapers trying to promote a return to atomic power.

Germany's push to withdraw from nuclear power originated with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, which helped the anti-nuclear movement gain momentum. A center-left governing coalition decided in 2000 on a nuclear power phase-out, but in late 2010, the center-right coalition administration of Chancellor Angela Merkel reversed course to prolong Germany's nuclear power use.

The Fukushima nuclear disaster broke out in March 2011, and soon after Germany returned to its phase-out policy under Merkel's leadership. Whether to interpret the move as a wise decision made by a physicist or the instinct of a leader intent on preserving her administration is up to the individual.

With the exception of a few countries, European states accommodate each other's power needs through a network of transmission operators. At the moment, members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are not particularly concerned about the possibility of a nuclear war.

Meanwhile, however, there is tension between the island nation of Japan and neighboring nuclear states. This means there's a realistic concern in the argument that Japan must protect its nuclear power plants to maintain a latent nuclear weapons capability. It lacks, however, the historical and global outlook to recognize that the Earth will not survive unless we eliminate our reliance on nuclear power and fossil fuels in light of the sudden development of emerging countries.

I asked a German government official whether the country finds itself isolated from the rest of the world, and received the response that half of Europe did not have nuclear reactors, and that France was in the process of reducing its nuclear reactors by half -- and at a faster pace than Germany.

Every country runs into bumps in the road. France's efforts toward halving its nuclear reactors may be stalled if the administration changes. As for Germany, however, its commitment to nuclear phase-out looks unwavering.

Germany has seen a boost in wind and biomass power generation, but still faces challenges in areas such as the expansion of transmission networks and thermal power generation as a back-up power source. There's no need to idealize Germany's transition efforts, but there is also no need to buy into the mocking dismissals voiced by Japan's proponents of nuclear power. (By Takao Yamada, Expert Senior Writer)

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