Question: What is Germany most famous for these days? Answer: engineering.
In light of the worldwide respect for German engineering, precision and management, why has Chancellor Angela Merkel taken up arms against her most admired national talents?
For that is what she has done in turning Germany against its nuclear future — a future she endorsed last fall. She has closed seven reactors permanently and has the 10 others set to cease operating sequentially by 2022.
Ostensibly, she has taken this draconian action in light of the Fukushima-Dai-ichi crisis in Japan; but more especially because her conservative-led Christian Democratic Union party and its coalition members have taken a drumming from the Green party in local elections.
Since the Japanese crisis, the German Greens have mobilized large anti-nuclear demonstrations throughout Germany. Indeed, the party was formed immediately after the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979. Since then it has been a force to be reckoned with in German politics — always there, but sometimes more vocal than others.
To German commentators, Merkel’s about-face speaks of just one thing: opportunism. Fearing the dissolution of her fragile coalition, she gave the Greens what they wanted: complete surrender on the nuclear issue.
While buying a political-life extension, Merkel has cast a shadow over Germany’s future as the economic engine of Europe. Without nuclear, Germany will face severe economic and even environmental challenges ahead.
Merkel says that the nuclear slack will be taken up by boosting its renewable energy sources – wind, solar and hydro — from 17 percent of the mix today to double that. Nuclear has been providing 25 percent of German electricity. It would take about 20,000 windmills alone to replace that.
Also, Merkel says, electricity consumption will be cut by 10 percent.
Quite how any of this will be achieved is uncertain. Already, conservation is a high priority in Germany and alternative energy has been a high priority for years.
Most likely there will be electricity shortages in parts of the country, mostly in the south; there will be more brown coal burned; and Russia will further extend its energy hegemony over Northern and Eastern Europe by upping the amount of gas provided to Germany for electricity production. Another ironic likelihood is that as Germany will have to import more electricity and it will have to do so from countries with a large nuclear base like France.
The three German utilities that own various nuclear plants are in a state of shock, even disbelief. One, Eon, already is talking about billions of euros of compensation for loss of business and capital goods. The others are likely to follow suit. There is likely to be litigation in the German and the European courts.
Early polls show that while the German people do not want nuclear, they also see the Merkel move as political and cynical. One poll found that 70 percent of the electorate found the chancellor’s actions to be opportunistic.
First calculations, not denied by Merkel’s administration, expect electricity prices – already among the highest in Europe – to bound by nearly 20 percent.
The untold damage is to the concept of the invulnerability of German engineering – that something special that has made German cars the gold standard of the world. If Germany does not believe that it can engineer its reactors to levels of safety and manage them with Prussian zeal, then what has happened to the German ethic?
Brown coal — the dirtiest there is, being somewhere between bituminous coal and peat in its makeup — is the default position in German energy. Dirty to burn but plentiful, it may now make a comeback with severe environmental consequences for Germany and its neighbors.
When Merkel talks about alternatives, she is really talking about wind and at thousands more turbines will now have to be added in a country with limited land area for diffuse energy sources.
Although the Germans have been more successful than thought possible with solar, it remains a cold, gray northern country that requires a lot of reliable affordable electricity to keep its place in the global economy. Merkel appears to have put her own future above that of her country. –For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate