I was a member of the special expert commission appointed by Chancellor Merkel in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan. This article presents some of the panel’s recommendations, which have become the foundation of Mrs Merkel’s policy of switching to alternative energy sources by 2021.
“YOU GERMANS are on your own,” was the reaction of Stewart Brand, the American environmentalist, to Germany’s plans to phase out nuclear energy. Brand added that Germany’s decision was irresponsible. Economic considerations and the threat represented by greenhouse gases mean that we simply cannot renounce nuclear energy. I had my doubts, but Fukushima persuaded me of the merits of nuclear energy, was George Monbiot’s provocative comment. Up to now, there have been no fatalities from the nuclear disaster, even though the reactors in Japan have been subjected to the severest test possible: one of the worst earthquakes ever, followed by a tsunami. So Monbiot now loves nuclear energy.
It would be utterly mistaken to imagine that Germany’s political decision to phase out nuclear energy means that it is turning its back on the European concept of modernity in favor of the dark forests, the obscure roots of German intellectual history. This is not simply the latest outburst of Germany’s proverbial love of the irrational, but rather proof of its faith in modernity’s adaptability and creativity in its dealings with risks it has itself generated.
Supporters of nuclear energy base their judgements on a concept of risk immune to experience, a concept that confuses the period of early industrialization with the nuclear age. Their risk rationale assumes that the worst can happen and that we have to be prepared for it. If the roof is ablaze, the fire brigade arrives, the insurance pays out, and the doctors are there to look after the casualties. Transferred to the risks of nuclear energy, this would require that even in the worst-case scenario, the radiation from our uranium would be a hazard for only a few hours rather than thousands of years, with no need to evacuate the population of any nearby city. This is nonsense. Following Chernobyl and Fukushima, anyone who still maintains that French, British, American, or Chinese reactors are safe fails to see that based on the weight of the evidence we ought to draw the exact opposite conclusion. After all, if anything is clear, it is that another nuclear disaster is a certainty. The only question is where and when.
There are those who argue that there can be no such thing as risk-free energy generation with any large-scale plants, and that is perfectly true. But if they go on to infer that in the clean use of coal, biomass, water, wind, sun, and also nuclear energy, the risks may vary but are comparable, they are trying to wriggle out of the awkward truth, which is that we are perfectly aware of what happens when there is a nuclear meltdown. We know how long radiation lasts, what effect caesium and iodine have on human beings and the environment, and how many generations would have to suffer if the worst actually happened. What is more, we know that these unlimited consequences—spatial, temporal, and social—do not apply to the alternative, renewable energy sources. Anyone who, like Monbiot, makes the number of fatalities the yardstick of risk obscures the damages done to the unborn and to the evacuees, thereby turning risk analysis into a kind of ideology.
What about insurance? Curiously enough, in the United States, that empire of free-market economics, nuclear energy was the first state-socialist industry—at any rate, when it comes to who assumes the costs of mistakes. The profits go into private pockets, while the risks are socialized; in other words, they are transferred to the taxpayer and to future generations. If the nuclear industry were forced to take out disaster insurance, that would spell the end of the myth of cheap nuclear power. The nineteenth-century concept of risk, when applied to nuclear power at the start of the twenty-first century, is a zombie concept, a category of the living dead that blinds us to the reality in which we live.
No other industrial nation is going to abandon nuclear power as fast as Germany. Doesn’t that show that this an exaggerated panic reaction? No. It is not the product of German angst. It’s the economy, stupid! In the long run, nuclear power will become more expensive, while renewable energy will become cheaper. But those who continue to leave all options open will not invest in the latter. A hesitant Germany would fail to achieve the push of self-fulfilling prophecy in energy change that is required. So we may perhaps say that while Germans aren’t full of angst, they are driven by a subtle anxiety. They sense the economic opportunities of future global markets. To the Germans, “energy revolution” is spelled j-o-b-s. A cynic might say, let other countries pride themselves on their fearlessness regarding nuclear energy—it will all end in technical stagnation and wasted investment. Supporters of nuclear energy block their own access to the markets of the future because they are not investing in energy-saving products, renewable energy, “green” professional training, and research institutes.
The situation we are facing at the dawn of the twenty-first century is comparable to other turning points in energy generation. Just imagine what would have happened 250 years ago if people had brushed aside the suggestion that they should invest in coal and steel, steam engines, power looms, and, later on, railways. Or what the world would be like now if fifty years ago people had seen the Americans suddenly investing in microprocessors, computers, the internet, and the new markets that those technologies opened up—and dismissed it all as the product of American angst. We are at a similar crossroads of history today. If we could open up just a part of the deserts for solar energy, we could satisfy the energy needs of the whole of civilization. No one can take possession of sunlight; no one can privatize or nationalize it. Everyone can open up this source of energy for himself or herself and profit from it. Some of the poorest countries in the world are “solar-rich.”
Nuclear energy is hierarchical and anti-democratic by its very nature. The exact opposite holds true for sources of renewable energy, like the sun and the wind. Users of energy produced by a nuclear power plant have their electricity cut off if they fail to pay their bills. This cannot happen to people using electricity generated by the solar panels installed on the roofs of their houses. Solar energy makes people independent. It is obvious that the availability of solar energy will threaten the monopoly of nuclear energy. Why, of all peoples, do the Americans, the French, and the British, who value freedom so highly, persist in remaining blind to the emancipatory consequences of the coming change in power generation?
People everywhere are proclaiming and mourning the death of politics. Paradoxically, the cultural perception of dangers like nuclear catastrophe may well usher in the very opposite: the end of the end of politics. To understand this, we need to go back to an insight of John Dewey’s, formulated originally as early as 1927, in The Public and its Problems. According to Dewey, a transnational public sphere powerful enough to create a community arises not from political decisions but from the consequences of decisions that have come to seem problematic in the lives of citizens. Thus a publicly perceived risk triggers communication among people who would otherwise prefer to have nothing to do with one another. It imposes obligations and costs on people who resist—and who often have the prevailing law on their side. In other words, what is denounced by many as a hysterical overreaction to the “risks” of nuclear energy is in fact a vital step toward ensuring that a turning point in energy generation becomes a step toward greater democracy.
Given the realistic alternatives of renewable energy, the strategies for action opened up by nuclear energy’s perceived potential for disaster completely disrupt the equilibrium established by the neoliberal alliance of capital and the state. The prospect of nuclear disaster empowers both states and social movements to develop new sources of legitimation and new courses of action. The novel coalition between the state and social movements, of the kind we currently see at work in Germany, now has a historic opportunity. Even in terms of power politics, this change of policy makes sense. Only a conservative government close to industry is capable of pulling off such a shift in energy policy, since the most vocal opponents are to be found in its own ranks.
It could well be that those who criticize Germany’s decision to opt out of nuclear energy have fallen victim to the caterpillar’s mistake: as it emerges from the chrysalis, it laments the disappearance of the cocoon because it has no premonition of the butterfly of renewable energy that it is destined to become.
Ulrich Beck is a sociologist at the University of Munich and the London School of Economics. He is the author of World at Risk (Polity Press, 2009).