German public reaction to Japan nuclear accident close to panic
Sales of Geiger counters and iodine tablets have soared in Germany since the nuclear accident in Fukushima, almost 9,000km away, and the association of pharmacists has even had to warn people not to take the pills unless there is a radioactive cloud directly above them.
All over the world, anxious questions are being asked about the safety of nuclear power. But the German public's response to the crisis has been more shrill than elsewhere. It has bordered on panic and compares unfavourably with the stoicism the Japanese are showing in their plight. Feelings have run so high Angela Merkel, the chancellor, who is facing three regional elections this month, on Monday halted the extension to the longevity of the country's 17 nuclear power stations.
In just 48 hours, Mrs Merkel reversed the biggest policy initiative she had undertaken since being re-elected in 2009.
The move has thrown the long-term energy strategy of Europe's largest economy into confusion and cast doubt on its ability to meet its climate control targets through an enormous expansion of wind power, biomass and solar-power generation.
Mrs Merkel announced a three-month "moratorium" on her nuclear policy, during which all reactors will undergo a renewed safety analysis. The seven oldest power stations will be shut down for the checks, which are due to run until June 15. Several may never be reopened.
It is a shrewd tactical move because it blunts opposition criticism of her nuclear stance and allows time for the anxiety to subside.
But it is already clear Mrs Merkel won't be able to stick to her plan, announced last year, to extend the lives of the nuclear plants by an average of 12 years beyond the original phase-out date of 2021 set by a previous centre-left government.
Mrs Merkel had argued convincingly nuclear power was needed for longer as a "bridging technology" to safeguard the supply of affordable electricity while Germany switched to renewable sources.
That position remains true despite the events in Fukushima. Germany relies on nuclear power for almost 23 per cent of its electricity and will not be able to just switch off all its reactors.
Germans feel they have a lot in common with the Japanese in terms of engineering prowess and safety requirements. If something can go as wrong as this at a Japanese plant, German facilities too may be at risk, the thinking goes.
The public is so jittery it is ignoring the simple fact Germany is not located in an earthquake danger zone and is not prone to suffering tsunamis.
German commentators say Fukushima spells the end of nuclear power, but they are wrong. Countries around the world have pledged to review the safety of their reactors, but most will end up concluding they can't do without them as global energy requirements rise.
India and China are among a string of power-hungry emerging economies that have said they plan to keep building power stations despite the crisis in Japan.
The accident has led to an intensified debate over nuclear power in the US and Europe and could, in some cases, end up slowing or halting the construction of new plants. But reliance on the technology will remain strong there, too. France, Europe's second-largest economy, gets almost 80 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power.
Europe cannot hope to meet its ambitious climate control targets if it turns its back on nuclear power now. And Mrs Merkel will have to curtail her plans for a green revolution by 2050 if she is forced to phase out all nuclear plants by 2021 or even shut them down before that date - a very real prospect given the political pressure she is under.
She knows this is a matter of political survival, and she wants to win a third term in an election in 2013.
Germans have a deep-seated aversion to nuclear power that predates even the Chernobyl accident in Ukraine in 1986, and is linked to a powerful pacifist movement that led to the establishment of the Green party in 1980. One survey released on Tuesday showed 60 per cent of Germans want all nuclear plants to be closed as soon as possible.
Germany derives more than 16 per cent of its power from renewable energy, and Mrs Merkel wants to raise that share to 80 per cent by 2050. The move will require investment totalling hundreds of billions of euros in wind farms, high-tech power lines, smart grids and hydroelectric plants. Without the extended use of nuclear power well into the 2030s, the plan would be in shreds.
Mrs Merkel said on Monday the answer may be to speed up the transition to green energy. That may prove unpopular too, though. The construction of unsightly new networks with huge power masts and humming transformer stations is sure to provoke local resistance across the nation - from the same people now demonstrating against nuclear power.
Updated: March 17, 2011 04:00 AM