Japan's nuclear crisis is sending ripples of unease across Europe, with the European Union convening an emergency meeting Tuesday to discuss safety measures for its nuclear power plants and Germany announcing a total rethink of its use of nuclear energy.
Chancellor Angela Merkel today suspended a plan to prolong the lifespan of Germany's 17 nuclear power plants, which are among 195 across a continent still haunted by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster 25 years ago. Britain, Switzerland, and Finland also announced reassessments of their nuclear programs.
"Everything will be reviewed," Ms. Merkel said at a press conference in Berlin. "If a highly developed country like Japan, with high safety standards and norms, cannot prevent the consequences for nuclear power of an earthquake and a tsunami, then this has consequences for the whole world."
This nation's wariness of nuclear power is exemplified in the small village of Biblis on the Rhine River, home to Germany's oldest nuclear reactor. While the plant is the village's biggest employer, many here were still incensed last fall when Merkel pledged to extend the life of the nation's nuclear power plants by 12 years beyond their original shutdown date in 2021 – breaking a popular deal forged by her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, to bring a "comprehensive and irreversible" end to nuclear power here.
Resident Erhard Renz felt betrayed, angry, and ready to protest.
And now with the unfolding nuclear crisis in Japan, Mr. Renz has done just that, joining upwards of 50,000 Germans on Saturday in a 25-mile-long human chain from Stuttgart to Neckarwestheim nuclear plant to call for their nation to shutter its nuclear facilities.
"Japan shows that it will never ever be possible to run a nuclear plant that’s problem-free," says Renz. "The question is when the next catastrophe strikes."
Merkel faces political dilemma
Merkel said she would invite all 16 state premiers to Berlin – likely tomorrow – to coordinate federal- and state-level discussions on nuclear safety. She said the three-month suspension and review could lead to the country’s oldest nuclear plants, such as in Biblis, to be closed permanently.
"This changes the situation, including in Germany," Merkel said. "We have a new situation, and this situation must be thoroughly analyzed."
Her announcement is also seen as a political move at a time when polls show most Germans oppose nuclear power. It has become a hot button issue in the March 27 election in Baden-Württemberg state, a conservative stronghold that Merkel's party is in danger of losing for the first time in almost six decades. The timing of the Japanese crisis could further hurt the Christian Democrats at the poll.
"They know they are trapped in a dilemma. They know they cannot reverse what they said earlier, that all power plants are safe," says Marcel Viëtor, who is in charge of energy and climate issues at the German Council on Foreign Relations, a Berlin-based think tank. "The best solution they’ve found is to pull the break and buy time."
Politicians shift stance
Already, Japan's unfolding crisis has prompted prominent Christian Democrats to depart from the party stance on nuclear power.
"If we take it seriously and say the incident has changed the world – and much that we as an industrial society have regarded as safe and manageable is now in question – then we can't exclude anything," said EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger, a member of Merkel’s party.
Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, another Christian Democrat, called on his party to discuss the nuclear energy anew. "The Christian Democrats cannot come up with answers from yesterday when the world today has changed."
Germany’s Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who leads the coalition partner Free Democrats, said he could see Germany abandoning the lifespan extension of nuclear power plants as a consequence of the Japan disaster.
"We need a new safety analysis," Mr. Westerwelle said Monday at a party meeting in Berlin. "We will also discuss the consequences [of nuclear energy] in Germany, and we will negotiate and decide quickly."