A special evening and a special honor

Permit me some very brief horn-tooting. Last night in Berlin, I was presented with a journalism prize, my first since high school, for a story I wrote in the fall. The Arthur F. Burns Prize is given annually by the German Foreign Ministry to one German and one American alum of the Burns Fellowship (which I did in 2010) for a story written in the previous calendar year. This year, the jury selected this story of mine on nuclear power in Germany, published in The New Republic.

I can safely say that last night was the first occasion on which I received congratulations from multiple U.S. ambassadors and the NATO commander. It was an honor to be among so many journalism, politics, and business VIPs, and it was more than a little surreal to be at the center of it all. Thanks to any Burns folks who may be reading this. I hope to live up to your very high standards.

For any Germanophones among you, here’s the press release from the Foreign Ministry.

Update: Ah, here’s an English version.


The Little Sluice That Could (But Maybe Can’t Anymore)

A week and change ago, I hopped a train (OK, a series of trains) to the northwest German village of Kleinensiel. I was the only person who exited the regional train in Kleinensiel. I could see why. The town’s sole restaurant was closed; its kiosk had a “back in 20 minutes” sign in the window that, I can assure you, was there for more than 20 minutes; and no one answered the door at the two guesthouses I found.

So what was I doing in this little backwater*? Actually, Kleinensiel’s diminutiveness was the reason I was there. That, and the fact that its nuclear power plant had been shut down a year earlier.

I’ve written before about Germany’s complicated relationship with nuclear power. Now, for the one-year anniversary of the government’s initial shutdown of half the country’s nuclear plants in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, I was working on a piece for the LA Times on the effects the shutdown has had — on both the German energy mix and towns like Kleinensiel.

To give you a sense of just how central the Unterweser nuclear plant is to life in Kleinensiel: The town has a population of 700. The plant, until the shutdown last month, employed 700 — not to mention all the contractors and inspectors and such who relied on Unterweser for their livelihoods. When Unterweser went online 33 years ago, it was the largest nuclear plant in the world, allowing tiny Kleinensiel (trans: Little Sluice) to supply three million homes with power.

This is the plant that looms over the single-story houses of Kleinensiel:

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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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Feeling the effects of the nuclear phaseout

Just as 60 years ago people would’ve called you crazy if you’d said America would soon be a net importer of cars, the prospect of Germany needing to import energy probably seemed pretty far-fetched just a few years ago. The country, by some measures the world’s leading producer of renewable energy, sold power from its wind and solar and coal and nuclear plants to its neighbors every day. But with the decision to pull the plug on half the country’s nuclear energy overnight, the equation changed. As I warned in this story in The New Republic, Germany was now facing not only higher short-term emissions, but also an energy reliance on its neighbors who have always been energy customers.

We’re starting to see it happen. Last month, on two days when the country was producing more energy than it needed, it still needed to import electricity from Austria. Why? Because the electric grid isn’t properly equipped to transmit power from the windy north to the industry-heavy south — not without a major overhaul. That’s why some people who support a nuclear phaseout to clear the way for renewables are still worried that the Merkel administration made the change too quickly, without giving Germany’s grid operators and renewable power companies enough time to prepare for the new energy patterns.

Mark your calendars

I just finished recording an interview with PBS’ Frontline on nuclear power in Germany. They’re doing a show on nuclear energy around the world after Fukushima, and it’ll air on January 3. Tune in!

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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