There are few journalists today with the breadth and depth of Joe Nocera, a former New York Times business columnist. It’s not just the awards (he’s won plenty and was a Pulitzer finalist) or the stints at GQ, Fortune, Esquire, the New York Times, and Bloomberg (that’s a partial list) or the books (including the bestseller All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis) or the podcast he wrote and hosted, The Shrink Next Door, which Apple turned into a TV miniseries.
It’s that Joe knows how to connect the dots—to take a complicated business or tech story and show how it’s also a political, cultural, and sociological one.
If you don’t know Joe, we’re really excited to introduce him to you and to have him publish regularly in The Free Press. Below is his first piece for us, on Germany’s irrational fear of nuclear energy, its decision to shut down its last three reactors, and what the country’s reliance on Russian energy has meant for Ukraine. —BW
Every country, every culture, has things it’s irrationally afraid of. The French are irrationally afraid of working till they’re 64 instead of retiring at 62—and they have riots to prove it. In the U.S., people are irrationally afraid of vaping, failing to understand that e-cigarettes can save lives, not shorten them. And in Germany—the subject of my first column for TFP—the citizenry are irrationally afraid of nuclear power.
In fact, Germany is so afraid of nuclear power that, as of April 15, it no longer has any working nuclear reactors, even though nuclear power once provided more than 25 percent of the country’s energy needs, and even though it is one of the safest, cleanest forms of energy in existence.
Germany decommissioned two reactors in the mid-2000s, and then, after the accident in Fukushima, Japan in 2011, it set a timetable to close down the rest. The last three were supposed to end operations last December but the deadline was extended to April after Russia invaded Ukraine. Why? Because Germany’s long dependence on Russian natural gas was likely to end (it has), and it needed the reactors to get through the winter.
Though the Germans made it through the winter with the help of those last three reactors, it cost them: the price of energy in Germany has gone through the roof.
What has made Germany’s energy policy choices even more inexplicable is that its irrational fear of nuclear power was combined, over the years, with an astonishing complacency toward Russia and Vladimir Putin.
The deal to build the first natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, Nord Stream 1, was cut in 2005 by Putin’s great friend, outgoing chancellor Gerhard Schröder. (Schröder was soon named to the board of the company that built the pipeline.) For years, the Germans talked about Russia a little like the way U.S. officials used to talk about China: the deal, they claimed, would export Western values and democracy, yada, yada, yada.
Then, in 2014, after Russia invaded Crimea, the Germans compartmentalized their view of the pipeline, insisting that it was nothing more than a business deal and had nothing to do with politics.
Many countries, including the U.S., had warned Germany over the years that the pipeline—and a second planned pipeline, Nord Stream 2—gave Russia tremendous leverage if it ever chose to weaponize its gas reserves. The Germans consistently dismissed those warnings.
Throughout the Russia–Ukraine war, Germany has been criticized for its reluctance to supply Ukraine with heavy weapons from its arsenal. What is being overlooked is the extent to which Germany’s reliance on Russian natural gas has helped pay for the buildup of the Russian military.
Consider: until the war, Germany bought about $25 billion worth of gas, oil, and coal from Russia per year, according to Paige Lambermont, a policy analyst at the Institute for Energy Research. Although the price of energy varies, Germany has probably spent, by my calculations, upward of $200 billion on energy resources from Russia.
Russia, meanwhile, gets 36 percent of its tax revenue from oil and gas sales. In the years leading up to the Ukraine invasion, Russia was spending between $61 billion and $65 billion a year for its defense. Is it fair to say that Germany’s euros were paying to help Russia prepare for the invasion of Ukraine? It sure is. It’s also fair to say that if Germany hadn’t been so hung up on the supposed evils of nuclear power, it might have been willing to see the real risk—dependence on Russia—more clearly.
“For 20 years, Germany has been getting cheap gas from Russia,” said Ian Bremmer, the president and founder of Eurasia Group. “Now prices are skyrocketing, and they’re going to have to pay the price.”
You know what’s also crazy about Germany’s anti-nuclear stance? It’s long been driven by its Green Party, even though nuclear energy is far friendlier to the environment than most alternatives. In fact, the Greens, who are now part of the ruling coalition, largely grew out of the anti-nuclear movement.
As early as 1980, Germany’s official policy called for phasing out both nuclear energy and fossil fuels. Anti-nuclear sentiment got a big boost after the Chernobyl disaster. By the time of Fukushima in 2011, 52 percent of the German public wanted the country’s nuclear reactors shut down within five years, and 71 percent said they would be willing to pay an extra 20 euros per month if their energy were produced in a non-nuclear facility, according to a poll conducted by Stern magazine.
Here’s something else that happened after Fukushima. The German government set up two commissions. The first focused on safety, asking whether any of Germany’s nuclear plants could someday experience a Chernobyl- or Fukushima-style calamity. The answer was no. “The safety review found they were in perfect working order,” Lambermont told me. “There was a significantly lower chance of an accident because the plants were extremely well constructed, more resilient, and less likely to face a sizable earthquake,” she added. (Ah, German engineering.)
The second commission concluded that while the risks of nuclear power hadn’t changed in Germany, people perceived it as riskier. And that perception is what drove government policy. “It had absolutely nothing to do with the quality of Germany’s nuclear reactors, which are genuinely world-class,” said Lambermont. Angela Merkel, who had pushed against the anti-nuclear movement, capitulated after Fukushima; her government established the schedule for eliminating nuclear power by 2022.
With those last three reactors now closed, the question looms: why would an environmentalist want to kill nuclear power? It’s cleaner than oil, coal, or even natural gas. It’s cheaper and more efficient than most renewables. In fact, as Germany has reduced its reliance on nuclear power, it has increased its reliance on coal, especially lignite, the dirtiest coal there is. In 2020, the German government set a goal of eliminating coal as a fuel source by 2038. That now seems unlikely.
The answer the Greens give is that, however small the likelihood, a nuclear accident must be avoided at all costs. And that even if Germany must use coal for the time being—until the country has a fully renewable energy grid, another one of the country’s pipe dreams—it is worth it to prevent a nuclear disaster like Chernobyl or Fukushima. What tends to be forgotten is that at Fukushima, nobody died of radiation poisoning. Subsequent studies have shown no discernible increase in the cancer rate.
And yes, Chernobyl was awful, with 31 plant workers killed in the accident, and as many as an additional 4,000 people may eventually die from cancers resulting from the radioactivity they absorbed, according to a 2005 estimate by the United Nations. But the Chernobyl plant was “an unstable plant design that was intentionally pushed to the absolute brink of its operational capabilities in secret,” Lambermont said. (Ah, Russian engineering.)
“It’s as if your irresponsible neighbor started a house fire with his outmoded stove, so you decide that you can only use your microwave from now on,” she added.
France gets 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy, and last year announced plans to build six more reactors. Japan is using nuclear energy again. The U.S. produces 30 percent of the world’s nuclear generation of electricity. True, there are other countries that have stopped using nuclear power, but none of them have Germany’s need for energy. Incredibly, the Greens don’t seem to care that they’ve become the party of coal.
On the day those last three nuclear reactors were shut down, there was a photo on Twitter of Mélanie Vogel, a French politician, and her girlfriend, Terry Reintke, a German member of the European Parliament. They are both Greens, and they looked like quite the happy couple. The caption read: “Sex is good but have you tried having your country shutting down its last nuclear power plants in 30 mn?”
Enjoy it while you can. But you may wake up tomorrow and wonder what in the world you were thinking.
Follow Joe Nocera on Twitter at @opinion_joe.
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