How To Push Germany’s Buttons 101

Germany really doesn’t want to be the bully of Europe. Throughout the euro crisis, there have been protests, complete with masks of Merkel with a Hitler mustache, across southern Europe, accusing Germany of trying to impose its will on its neighbors. Germany, of course, doesn’t like this: Half the point of the EU and the euro was to prevent German domination, and, German leaders insist, all they’re trying to do is hold these institutions together. This week, in a press conference with Italian PM Mario Monti, Merkel bent over backwards to sing the praises of Italy and insist that Germany isn’t trying to make Italy “German.”

But when it comes to energy, Germany can’t help being a little bullyish.

Last year, German environmentalists won a major victory when the Merkel administration shut down half the country’s nuclear power plants and pledged to phase out the other half by 2022. Future safety from a Fukushima-like disaster was assured. Or so it seemed.

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As if the German government didn’t have enough on its plate…

In my story in the New Republic Monday on environmental politics in Germany, I laid out a few ways in which the country’s overnight abandonment of nuclear power has backfired. Add another to the list: Lawsuits.

The Swedish energy giant Vattenfall has decided to sue the German government for shutting down the reactors it operates in Germany. The company says it invested €700 million in its German reactors after the Merkel administration decided last year to extend the operating life of nuclear plants. Now, with the post-Fukushima reversal, those investments are worthless. And Vattenfall’s asking for €1 billion in compensation. Two other energy companies have already sued the government in connection with the nuclear shutdown.

The phaseout of nuclear power is in many ways desirable: It helps allow for the development of renewable energy sources, and it removes the potential for a meltdown or attack. But the Merkel administration’s reversal was so hasty that it opened the door to some negative consequences that were probably avoidable: the short-term need to import coal and nuclear power from Germany’s neighbors, sharply rising energy costs, and now lawsuits.

‘Be careful what you wish for’ goes green

When I was in Berlin last year, I wrote a story for Foreign Policy magazine about the comeback of nuclear power in Europe. Germany, the leader of the anti-nuclear movement, where strong majorities supported phasing out nuclear power, had just undergone a shift. The Merkel government had decided to prolong the operating life of the country’s reactors by an average of 12 years. Elsewhere on the continent, nuclear’s future seemed strong as well.

On March 11, 2022, six months after the story went to print, my thesis became completely obsolete. The Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan led the Merkel government to reverse course, shut down half the country’s reactors immediately, and pledge to phase out the remainder over the next decade. Environmentalists cheered the decision. It was a more definitive victory than they could have imagined last year.

Except maybe not. Both grounds on which German environmentalists pushed for the end of nuclear power now appear shaky. On the green front, the nuclear shutdown has already caused carbon emissions to increase by 25 million tons per year, since Germany’s replacing much of its clean nuclear power with dirty coal. But the biggest winner in the phaseout is nuclear power abroad, which now counts Germany among its best customers. No longer a net exporter of power, Germany is importing nuclear power from neighbors like France and the Czech Republic. And some of this power is coming from plants with a history of malfunctions, just across the German border. On the safety front, too, then, Germans are probably not better off now.

Which is all a long way of saying that I wrote a story for The New Republic on this topic that was published this morning. If you’re interested in a more thorough treatment of the subject, check it out!

Update: And right on cue, the Czechs are more than ready to take advantage, to the chagrin of their German and Austrian neighbors.

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