When Germany pledged a "comprehensive and irreversible" end to nuclear power barely a decade ago, antinuclear activist Erhard Renz thought he'd won. Reassured that the Biblis nuclear power plant near his home would be turned off within years, Mr. Renz turned his green passions to installing solar panels. "We were convinced it was over," he says.
But Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to extend the life span of Germany's 17 plants an average of 10 years beyond 2021, the date the country's last plant was to be turned off, reawakened the antinuclear fervor within Renz, a retired Daimler Benz engineer who lives near Biblis, a Rhine Valley village that is home to the plant that was the world's largest when it opened in the mid-1970s.
On Sept. 18, along with tens of thousands of Germans in Berlin, Renz took part in what observers say was the biggest antinuclear protest in Germany since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. "For years and years, we said, 'As a big economic power, we're getting out of nuclear.' And now, what is our message? That Germany couldn't make it?" says Renz. "What a debacle for renewable energy, and for Germany."
Keeping nuclear reactors running longer is part of an ambitious road map of the country's energy future that Chancellor Merkel's coalition of conservatives and liberals ratified Sept. 28. It considers nuclear power a "bridge" toward helping renewable energy provide almost all of the country's electricity by 2050, up from the 16 percent today that Merkel describes as "no less than a revolution in energy generation." But Merkel's reversal on an earlier commitment to end nuclear power also hit a raw nerve, rekindling one of the most deeply anchored traits of today's German culture: its visceral aversion to nuclear power.
Critics see hypocrisy on green energy
"This decision casts doubt on what Germany told the world all those years," says Marcel Viëtor, who is in charge of energy and climate issues at the German Council on Foreign Relations, a Berlin-based think tank. "It gives the impression that Germany does not totally believe in the potentials of renewable energy. It's saying, 'We still cannot do it without nuclear, because renewables do not provide enough energy.' And people could be wondering, 'Why are the Germans promoting renewable energy abroad, but are reluctant to use it to its full extent at home?' "
"It's challenging what has become the core part of German identity," adds Miranda Schreurs, director of the Environmental Policy Research Center at the Free University of Berlin. "There's going to be protest."
The recent protest over Merkel's plan is a sign that antinuclear feelings run more deeply than in the 1970s, say experts. Back then, as the 1973 oil embargo led many countries to expand nuclear plants, Germany's antinuclear activism gained momentum after the Chernobyl nuclear accident in what is now Ukraine.
A milestone came when former Chancellor Helmut Kohl's conservative government created a ministry to oversee nuclear safety and the environment that is still considered one of the strongest in the world. Later, former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder broke ground with a commitment to close all nuclear plants and with a law heavily subsidizing green energy.
"Germany has pushed renewable [energy] harder than any country," says Ms. Schreurs. Germany is now the world's largest producer of renewable energy; nine times as many people are working in the sector today than did 10 years ago. Nuclear power here generates one-quarter of Germany's electricity, compared with 80 percent in France.
Opponents promise a 'fiery autumn'
Claudia Roth, co-chair of Germany's Green Party, which co-wrote the country's nuclear-exit law under Gerhard Schroeder's coalition in the early 2000s, said that delaying the nuclear plants' phaseout would break Germany's green momentum. "I can promise the government a fiery autumn," Ms. Roth says, warning of an antinuclear movement stronger than ever before.
But turning off the plants now would boost Germany's dependence on its largest natural-gas supplier, Russia. Because Germany relies on energy-intensive heavy industry, keeping electricity affordable is crucial, says Anne Loske, head of a federation of industrial power users.
Germany's change in energy policy fits a European pattern of concerns over rising electricity prices and increased dependence on gas from Russia and oil from the Middle East, experts say. Countries like Sweden and Italy that had pledged to turn off nukes have also changed their tune.
"There is a change of attitude toward nuclear [power]," says Ms. Loske. "A growing group of people understands that if the problem now is climate change, nuclear has to be part of the picture."
Germans share a broad consensus on going green, but how to do it divides the country. "It's clear we're going to phase out [the nuclear plants]. The question is when," says Mr. Viëtor. "It's a question of belief."
And, some say, ideology.