Germany’s Nuclear Energy Dilemma
By “Awake!” correspondent in the Federal Republic of Germany
NUCLEAR WAR! Who is not horrified at the very thought of it? The rapid collapse of Hitler’s forces in the spring of 1945 may well have been the thing that prevented Germany from getting the dubious distinction of being the first country struck by nuclear war. But now, over 30 years later, this country has been hit by something that leading German newspapers and magazines are likening to an “atomic war” of another kind, a serious one that may have far-reaching consequences.
About the only thing everyone agrees on is what this “war” is all about: the peaceful use of nuclear energy. So it’s a “peaceful atomic war,” if you will. But with that, agreement ends and dissension begins. Is it advisable and necessary to build nuclear power plants in the first place? If so, are construction requirements sufficiently high to ensure safety? What about disposing of radioactive waste? Is it wise and desirable to sell nuclear plants to other countries? What are proper methods to prevent possible terrorist misuse of nuclear know-how?
Man has been successful in splitting the atom, but he has not succeeded in preventing this knowledge from splitting the unity of his society and that of his governments. “Nuclear Energy Splitting Our Land,” warned the February 25, 1977, front-page headlines of the newspaper Die Zeit. Could it be that the atom is out for revenge?
To Build or Not to Build?
Proponents of nuclear power plants argue that additional energy sources are vital to guarantee the nation’s industrial capacity. They say that no alternative to nuclear power is presently available. While admitting the existence of certain dangers, they stress that necessary precautions have been taken to minimize the risk.
On the other hand, Horst-Ludwig Riemer, Economics Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, stated: “I am not impressed by the constantly recited prognosis: according to the law of averages, a reactor malfunction can only be expected once every 10,000 years. Nobody can assure me that this might not happen during its first year of operation.” The Süddeutsche Zeitung agreed: “In principle, if anything can happen sometime, then it can also happen now.”
The names of three of the over 20 nuclear power plants either now in operation or under construction have become almost synonymous with the protest movement—Wyhl, Grohnde and Brokdorf. Describing violent clashes between protesters and police at Brokdorf in November of 1976, the Hamburger Morgenpost spoke of “wartime action.” Stern magazine called it “the civil war in Brokdorf,” and went on to say: “The atomic war is being fought on green meadows—with conventional weapons. Its radiation does not kill, but the shock waves radiating out from the most brutal floggings to take place since the student unrests of 1968 are also poisonous—poisonous for politicians. Those who persist in following a policy of bludgeoning their critics, instead of listening to them, are turning the democratic state into a police state.”
Citizen coalitions, organized to halt additional construction of nuclear power plants, argue that less dangerous alternatives are available to ensure an ample supply of energy. They protest with such catchy slogans as “Better active today than radioactive tomorrow,” or “Nuclear energy to be dead sure.” They also raise the question of where atomic waste from these plants can be deposited safely.
Citizens in a democratic state have the right of peaceful protest. Officials say that they have no contention with the citizen coalitions per se, even admitting that the government has seen fit to reappraise its energy program and construction standards in view of the arguments these groups have presented. But radical and criminal elements have managed to work their way into these citizen movements and have turned intended peaceful protest marches into angry riots. Some of the citizen leaders admit the danger of extremist infiltration, but take offense at being classified with terrorists, radicals and criminal elements. Their feeling is that they cannot be held responsible for persons who misuse protest marches for their own political purposes; nor can they be expected to forsake their right of peaceful protest merely to prevent such misuse. Besides, they maintain, the police at times have overreacted and employed authoritarian tactics.
Leading politicians disagree on how to solve the problem of protest. Die Zeit headlined an article on this subject with the observation: “Cabinet Is Split.” So are the courts. Whereas one court ruled to halt further construction on a reactor, less than a month later another court said that work on a second plant could continue. In both cases essentially the same issues were involved. Hence, the question remains, To build or not to build?
To Sell or Not to Sell?
Back in 1975 the Federal Republic of Germany agreed to sell Brazil eight nuclear reactors, a uranium enrichment plant and a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant. This was strongly opposed by the United States. Despite opposition, the German government went ahead with its plans, finalizing them in April of 1977. The result has been tension between two powerful members of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. How paradoxical that the use of nuclear power in peacetime should threaten the unity of an organization set up to prevent its possible misuse in wartime!
Curbing the Terrorist Threat
Another factor that has come into the picture is the possible misuse of nuclear energy by terrorists. Germany has had its share of terrorist activity during the past few years. Hence, there is a nagging fear that terrorists might in some way obtain fissionable material with which to construct an atomic bomb. Although admittedly difficult, this is by no means impossible. Just how far should the government be permitted to go in taking preventive measures? Would it be justified in using even illegal and unconstitutional methods?
Pointing up the relevancy of such questions were news reports in March of 1977 that Klaus Traube, a German nuclear scientist, had been the victim of illegal government wiretapping. He was suspected of having terrorist connections, and out of fear that through him nuclear know-how might fall into the hands of terrorists, the government broke its own laws restricting wiretapping.
This revelation set off a chain reaction that brought still another disturbing fact to light. The government admitted that during 1975 and 1976 private conversations between the now convicted ringleaders of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group and their lawyers had likewise been illegally recorded. Out of fear that her conversations would be recorded, Ulrike Meinhof, who committed suicide during the course of the two-year-long trial, had at times refused to talk to her lawyers, insisting upon communicating in writing instead. Although this event had no direct connection with the nuclear problem, the fear of terrorist misuse of nuclear know-how is what had brought it out into the open. It doubtless also widened the “credibility gap” between the government and its citizens, making a meeting of minds on the subject of nuclear energy more difficult to achieve.
Casualties in wartime generally are counted in the thousands or millions of killed, injured and missing, and a war with no deaths would be a minor one indeed. While no deaths can as yet be directly attributed to Germany’s “peaceful nuclear war,” there exists the possibility of future fatalities. At Grohnde, 20,000 nuclear power opponents and 4,000 policemen battled with clubs, chains, iron bars, Molotov cocktails, tear gas and water cannons, leaving upward of 300 persons seriously injured. Such confrontations could easily bring about a number of deaths. Also, if some malfunction were to release radioactive material, as protesters fear, there could be many casualties.
In a sense, even the government has become a casualty. Increased friction has tended to weaken democratic processes inside the nation as well as its international alliances outside. The judicial victories won by citizen coalitions and the publicity they received have done much to increase the power of such coalitions and to broaden their base of operation. A temporary halting of construction work at Grohnde, for example, was ordered less than three months after the riots there. This has given rise to the fear that citizen coalitions might become so strong as to interfere with the proper functioning of government. Were that to happen, chaos would reign.
No wonder the average citizen is worried! He is concerned about possible loss of freedom and government breakdown. On the other hand, he is worried about nuclear proliferation, radioactive pollution and terrorist misuse of nuclear power.
This dilemma is but one of many facing people today in various parts of the earth. Obviously, new answers are needed. Is solar energy one of them?