Mark HibbsIs Mrs. Merkel Irrational?

On Monday morning March 28, I appeared at the opening panel discussion at the 2011 Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference, to discuss “Implications of Japan’s Nuclear Disaster,” together with two colleagues, Eli Levite, ex of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission, and former NRC Chairman Dick Meserve; Vallumpadugai Arunachalam of the Center for Study of Science, Technology, and Policy in India; Irv Rotter, a partner at the law firm Sidley Austin in New York; and NRC Commissioner George Apostolakis.

Near the end of our discussion, I made reference to the snap decision, announced by German Chancellor Angela Merkel just a couple of days after the LOCA began unfolding at Fukushima, to immediately shut down seven German reactors, and to shelve and possibly reverse a prior commitment to extend the lifetimes of these units beyond their politically agreed-upon lifetimes of just over 30 years.

I expressed the view that, depending on how the accident in Japan played out, there may be forthcoming political responses worldwide which, viewed through the lens of the agencies which to nuclear safety heavy lifting for national government regulators—in this business they are called Technical Support Organizations or TSOs— could be termed irrational and therefore fraught with political risk.

I did indeed intend my remarks to be understood with reference to what had happened in Germany during the last three weeks.

My comment provoked a friend and colleague at the Frankfurt Peace Research Institute, Bernd Kubbig, to spontaneously interject from the upper tier of the auditorium at the Reagan International Trade Center. “I am German and I agree with the decision which was not irrational.” (I’m recalling the remark from memory since on the recorded video of the panel discussion Bernd’s comments are inaudible).

Quite unexpectedly, I was seated at the ensuing Monday lunch together with Bernd at the same table. We discussed this, and I think we quickly reached an understanding. In ordering those seven reactors shut down I question that there were technical grounds for it prompted by the accident in Japan. I think Bernd agreed with me that, from the point of the TSO in Germany’s nuclear regulatory process, Merkel’s decision to shut the reactors down immediately on the basis of an external event—a tsunami—which could be excluded from happening in Germany, must have seemed irrational indeed.

But Bernd may be right that, measured using the calculus of politics, Merkel’s decision to shut those reactors right away was rational. In any event, her decision to shelve the life extensions was certainly political in extremis.

The LOCA at Fukushima began on March 11. The next day, 60,000 people formed a human chain extending from the Neckarwestheim nuclear power plant (GKN-1 being one of the oldest German reactors and subject to life extension politics) to Stuttgart forty miles away.

Stuttgart wasn’t chosen as the Endziel of this demonstration by chance. (Endziel means terminus, BTW, and if you ever learned any German in a prior lifetime, you’ll get a refresher course by clicking on to some of the links on this post) Stuttgart is the capital of the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg. A pivotal state parliamentary election was scheduled for March 27, sixteen days after the Fukushima LOCA began. The outcome of that election would be critical to Merkel’s efforts to assure that she has a majority in the upper house of the federal parliament (states’ chamber, where voting is population-weighted) for the rest of her term as Chancellor through late 2013—by no means a certainty. A lot was on the line. Everything she did in the realm of nuclear policy between March 11 and March 27 was informed by that forthcoming election.

In fact, Merkel’s political calculation didn’t pay off.

As a result, for the first time in history, a German state will be ruled by a coalition of left-of-center Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens following an election in which the Greens outpolled the SPD and will therefore appoint a Green politician as state premier who will rule for four years. Did Fukushima figure in the result? You bet. Before the election, Merkel’s candidate, Stefan Mappus (bookmark this name—he will be mentioned again below), from her right-of-center Christian Democratic Union (CDU), had unabashedly gone to bat for the state’s powerful utility company, ENBW, in favor of extending the lifetimes of GKN-1 and another reactor, Philippsburg-1. For the Green/SPD bloc that vowed to rule as partners if elected, the accident in Japan couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.

I have closely followed the political fortunes of Germany’s nuclear energy program for over two decades. There is a repeated pattern of intense spikes of antinuclear agitation and public fear whenever something goes wrong, followed by a slow recovery of public opinion settling in to a kind of 50-50 standoff before something goes wrong again. If for a long period of time the industry and its conservative political supporters are lulled into concluding that things have stabilized, during election campaigns you will hear harrumphing pronouncements from utility company captains, lobbyists, and opinion researchers on their behalf whistling in the dark that “nuclear will not be an issue” in a forthcoming (municipal, state, or federal) contest.

When something goes wrong—and in Japan something went very, very wrong—then the CDU and its sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU), which is even more pronuclear, can get into deep, deep trouble. That happened in Baden-Wuerttemberg last month.

But let’s go back to what I said about Merkel’s reaction being irrational.

Again, I couldn’t find a solid reason to support a decision by the German government to respond to the Japanese events by ordering a lot of reactors in Germany to shut down for safety reasons. If someone has such a safety-technical justification, may he or she come forth.

What about the issue of whether these seven reactors should be permitted to operate for a longer period of time?

To begin with, in Germany that matter is handled differently than it does in some countries—including Japan and the US—because German power reactors don’t have a fixed license term. (In the US and Japan that term is 40 calendar years, and if owners want them to operate longer than that, they have to be re-licensed).

Instead—I’m simplifying here somewhat—a German power reactor can continue to operate indefinitely provided it meets a bunch of technical safety criteria. Back in 2000, when the SPD and the Greens formed a federal coalition government, over the next three years they legislated a phase-out of all 17 German reactors. That implied that, separately from the issue as to whether the German reactors would on a day-by-day basis meet the German safety criteria to retain their operating licenses, a political decision was taken to shut them down according to a timetable.

So far, so good: there are technical yardsticks applied in Germany, but the decision making on whether the reactors will be pulled from the grid—today, in 2 years, in 25 years, or not at all—is political.

Merkel ordered seven reactors shut on March 15—four days after the Fukushima LOCA began.  In announcing it she said that step was taken for “safety reasons.”  In tandem, Stefan Mappus (see above)—who had vowed to keep GKN-1 operating if re-elected as premier in Baden-Wuerttemberg—astounded voters by announcing that as a result of Fukushima GKN-1 would be “permanently shut down.”

Intervening in a hurry and flip-flopping like this after the accident in Japan may, to follow Bernd’s argument, be politically rational, but I would argue it doesn’t make for very credible nuclear politics. Why? Because Germany’s nuclear debate is at a certain level just a stage for a larger debate over the German nation’s confidence in its political and economic elites. In Baden-Wuerttemberg, Merkel’s party has ruled for five decades without interruption. Fukushima fanned the flames of a bonfire of opposition to permanent CDU rule there which had been touched off late last year when Mappus (yes, him again) had pressed to build a super-express passenger train line through downtown Stuttgart, necessitating a re-build of the city’s main rail terminal. The protests against that project looked very much like German antinuclear demonstrations from years past.

So Merkel has her moratorium. For three months, all seven reactors will be shut down. What happens in the meantime?

As I said, there is a list of technical criteria in place which are the yardsticks against which German reactors must demonstrate their safety.  This will now be revised, Merkel’s nuclear regulator said last week.

For a decade and until Merkel was re-elected in 2009 to form a government without the SPD, there was an internal food fight going on between the country’s nuclear industry, and federal safety regulators, about amending those safety yardsticks. (Now that was a wonky interaction if there ever was one). In my previous incarnation, I wrote at length about this, much to the consternation of most of the participants who wanted to keep it all secret  in the interest of discreetly leaking bits of it to reporters unfamiliar with the technical issues who wouldn’t know what questions to ask (I’m still very grateful to the handful of those individuals who implicitly understood that transparency in this issue would do the country’s nuclear program a world of good). The War of the Roses couldn’t have been more bitter than this. German industry representative muttered that the country’s regulators were politically-motivated numbskulls without engineering degrees (We’re also hearing that today from certain people who are seeing their nuclear renaissance melting down in Japan). SPD political appointees in the regulatory agency blew hot air about a conspiracy by industry which was meant to sabotage a justified upgrade in safety standards in the interest of profit. And so forth ad infinitum without resolution.

And now?  A week or so after Fukushima, Merkel’s (CDU) nuclear regulator announced that the technical guidelines which were a battleground for so many years will be revised. The last draft revision was made known back in mid-February. Here’s the catalogue of issues the new, forthcoming guidelines will have to address afresh after Fukushima:

Wow. This is an astounding list. It suggests there will be a brand new reassessment at all 17 German reactors for earthquakes, floods, terrorist attacks, plane crashes, and on-site impacts on a reactor from an accident at an adjacent unit.

A day or two after Merkel announced she would shut the German reactors down, I was briefly interviewed on BBC-TV to explain this. The Beeb being TV, I didn’t have a lot of time. At the end of the interview, an insightful producer cut to the quick: “Wait a minute. In other words, what you are telling us is that, in a nutshell, either the German authorities have already looked into these safety issues as they should have, implying that what they’re going to do now is just political theatre, or, if they didn’t investigate this stuff before, if they now find the reactors aren’t safe, they should be sued for negligence.”

Mrs Merkel’s seven reactors will be shut for three months.

We will see how this plays out. Stay tuned.


  1. Aversion (History)

    Nice text.
    One small mistake: “appoint a Green politician as state premier who will rule for four years.” In Baden-Württemberg, there are election every five years, so Mr Kretschmann will be state premier for five years.

  2. yousaf (History)

    The technical, safety and political issues are certainly important to discuss.

    But there is also economic considerations: the implicit deep subsidies in all countries favoring nuclear, artificially cheapens electricity and thus increases demand for it.

    In the US this is more explicit e.g. the Price-Anderson Act which is amongst the few reasons nuclear is done at all.

    Instead of subsidizing energy, its price ought instead to be increased to reflect the myriad societal economic, health and environmental costs: e.g. from the BP oil spill and the recent Japanese Fukushima nuclear disaster.

    e.g. Japan as a whole should not pay for TEPCO’s disaster: TEPCO should, and if it did nuclear power in Japan would not survive.

    Coal too has high societal costs, of course, and the price of electricity derived from coal ought to be increased also.

    Once nuclear and fossil energy are priced correctly (i.e. more expensive) it will spur investments in re-newables, and more naturally bring an equilibrium between supply and demand, by increasing conservation and opening up the market without biases.

    Thus the technical, safety and political issues need to be analyzed in tandem with the false government-subsidized economics of nuclear and coal power.

    On the nuclear/political/techical front that you focus on above, there was an interesting commentary in Nature:

  3. The Rad Rider (History)

    Worse Than Chernobyl

    No one likes an alarmist without cause, however, there appears to be ample cause for alarm.

    All nuclear power plants that depend on electrical power for their safety systems are subject to meltdown and/or explosion if the electrical power is lost for an extended period. If a massive solar storm lasted for several days, power generation could be disrupted globally. Unless all of the vital equipment in nuclear power plants is absolutely shielded from disruption, the problems witnessed in Japan could be witnessed world wide.

    Study the close up views of the #3 reactor explosion and you will see that the blast was not the type of explosion one would expect from the ignition of hydrogen. The fireball seen in the corner of the plant may have been due to hydrogen but it was much too small to cause the main blast. Not only that, inspection reveals that this was a directional blast. Much as if a cannon had been fired straight up from inside the reactor building.

    This is what one would expect if the reactor vessel exploded with enough force to take out the drywell dome and the removable concrete pads that cover it.

    Injecting water into a melting core can cause an immediate explosion of steam. If the temperature of the reactor vessel has reached the critical temperature, it will not have the integrity required to withstand this dramatic increase in pressure. The critical temperature of the reactor vessel and the melting temperature of the fuel rods are near the same.

    If my assessment is correct, the dark colored cloud we witnessed, that was shot approximately 1,000 feet into the air, contained the MOX core of the reactor and made this accident worse than Chernobyl. The experts that claim that Chernobyl was the worst possible form of accident due to it’s lack of a containment, do not take into account that a contained core, could be violently exploded out of the containment and straight up into the atmosphere. This is worse than exploding a core that is not contained However, this is not EVER supposed to happen.

    Just like the total loss of electrical power.

    I suspect the #1 and #2 reactor vessels lost their integrity by the same process.

    The experts that have been downplaying the seriousness of this accident, have an agenda other than disseminating the truth. It is long past time for the worlds leading scientists to speak up and point out the discrepancies in the current story. So far, only a very few are speaking out about these things.

    It is also long past time for news reporters to do the basic research required, before publishing erroneous and misleading details in their stories. This helps to ensure that when someone makes false statements of fact, the reporter will know that they have intentionally been misled. While watching Anderson Cooper 360 on night, I witnessed Dr. Sanja Gupta telling Anderson that a paper suit and a particle respirator would protect him from the “gamma waves swirling about in the air.” I immediately sent a message to Anderson telling him that Sanjay did not have a clue and that he should seek better advise. They canceled the second half of the show and Anderson left Tokyo a short time later.

  4. Ben (History)

    Two quick points.

    I have no idea what you mean by irrational, but I’m guessing that you mean to suggest that choices that give serious weight to the desires of the electorate might be irrational. It seems to me that reactor operators gain the short term benefit. The rest of use take on the long term risks. I hardly see how it is irrational if the electorate comes to doubt that bargain. It is entirely rational for their agents (the politicians) to withdraw licenses as the doubt grows. I guess. To put this another way. I think the German electorate was a lot closer to pulling the plug on their reactors than your typical American is.

    Then there is a purely pragmatic angle. Germany maybe further along than other 1st world nations on having alternatives to nuclear (or the electorate may think so). Their options space looks different from other nations. They have spent more in support of alternative energy sources.

    Ok, maybe three points. The presumption that we can trust the technocrats to make tradeoffs like this is thrown into serious doubt in cases like this. I found it fascinating to observe the Japanese professors on the TV (the japanese TV with english language translation). They all had this look of “Oh my God what have we done! I thought this was impossible.”

    • Magpie (History)

      I’m guessing he means irrational as failing to use a rational process to reach a decision.

      It was already a given that reactors can be rendered dangerous if damaged by disaster. A reactor was then damaged by disaster and became dangerous. This is treated like a new given.

      It ‘aint a new given.

      Acting as if something is a new given even when it clearly isn’t, is not rational. The German reactors are as safe today as they were in January. No information relevant to those reactors has been received since January, so if it was rational to run them in January, then it is still rational to run them now.

  5. Eve (History)

    Everything will be returned to green fields!

    Even old cracks in the PWR won’t stop Stade or Brunsbüttel
    returning to the ground state of green fields

  6. djysrv (History)

    If Merkel keeps her nukes shut down, them could open the door for reviving the tender for Temelin in the Czech Republic.

  7. genomega (History)

    Are they safe from attacks from outer space?
    The problem in Japan stems from 100% negligence.

  8. John Schilling (History)

    The BBC, as usual, has the most insightful producers on television. However, political theatre ought not be trivially dismissed with a “just”. In a democracy, political theatre is sometimes vital, and this may be one of those occasions. Germany’s reactors are as safe today as they were last month, but Germany’s people are more afraid today than they were last month. Irrational or not, that will have real consequences and will need to be dealt with.

  9. Rod Adams (History)

    The main beneficiary of a three month – or longer – shutdown of German nuclear power plants is Gazprom. Every day that those seven plants are in an unscheduled shutdown means an additional 1.5 billion cubic feet or so of natural gas sales.

    Surprise, surprise, but the former chancellor of Germany who negotiated the initial deal to permanently shut down all Germany reactors well before the end of their natural life is now a very well paid executive at – you guessed it, Gazprom.

  10. gbettanini (History)

    Today its all about politics and emotions.
    Tomorrow, with (hopefully) the evidence of scarce long-term effects in Fukushima, maybe we will see a ‘cash for clunkers’ program for very old reactors, there will be many new constructions and a real joint program in Europe for the disposal of spent nuclear fuel.
    After Fukushima the sun isn’t brighter, the wind isn’t stronger and fossil fuels continue to produce carbon dioxide.

    • yousaf (History)

      Yes, but if nuclear and fossil are priced correctly (more expensive) then this results in less demand and no brighter sun nor stronger winds are needed.

      Google the Price-Anderson Act to see why nuclear power is still around.

  11. Knut Grunwald (History)

    The questions in the rskanforderungskatalog_hp should have been answered before. And they should be asked for any industrial plant with the chance to kill people which are living nearby. What would you think, if a chemical plant was no fire fighting department ? Or an airport, where the emergeny landing runway leads to the nearby hospital ?

    You can’t control any risk, but you should identify as many of them as possible, so you may have a plan, if something weird happens.

  12. John F. Opie (History)

    Ah, politics and rationality. Two mutually exclusive terms, it seems.

    Living in Germany as I do, I do not agree with Bernd: it was an emotional decision based on irrational fears. The anti-atom movement in Germany has always had a risk argument at the core of their opposition, one that if applied to any area outside of nuclear power plants would stifle any sort of economic activity. Simply put, for them nuclear power is in and of itself a risk that no one should be exposed to.

    We live in a world full of risks, many of which cannot be controlled and avoided. There are always those risks that cannot be quantified and include a political decision to accept the risk (for instance, a meteor strike hitting a nuclear plant is so unlikely that it can be safely discounted, but if you were to posit that no risks whatsoever are acceptable, then positing this risk, unlikely as it sounds, requires that you do not build).

    The problem in Germany is one of a fairly incoherent energy policy that has postponed making hard energy decisions. Germans are heavily dependent on Russian gas and it is a source of political friction between Germany and Russia, the latter which feels the Germans should be more receptive to Russian political policies due to their energy dependence (Great power politics dies hard in Russia…); coal survives only via massive subsidies (it would be cheaper to pay coal workers their salaries to stay home and do nothing, instead of digging out coal, as the per-worker subsidies are greater than what it costs to employ them); wind and solar are heavily subsidized, increasingly unpopular because of they are eyesores and dangerous (the latter especially true for solar, where volunteer fire departments will let houses burn if they are covered with solar, as they lack the proper equipment and training to douse such a fire without running into high voltages, toxic chemicals and the like); nuclear has been (successfully) demonized for political sport.

    The Germans don’t have a lot of alternatives for their energy mix, given the nature of the country (heavy industrialized society) and relative lack of resources. The reactors taken off line will bring total German electrical supply well below peak demand levels, threatening the net here with a demand-supply gap. Choosing to get into such a situation voluntarily is not a rational choice.

    What Bernd is calling a rational choice is the choice not to accept any risk with the technology whatsoever. That is, however, not in and of itself a rational choice, but rather an emotional/political choice, founded deep in German romanticism (which rejects technology as being ruinous of man living in harmony with nature…

    I think the last time there was a rational discussion between the political parties in Germany regarding nuclear energy was back in the late 1970s.

    • yousaf (History)

      The energy companies should pay for these risks, and for the cleanup when accidents happen.

      If this were so nuclear energy would be priced out of the market.

      In the US if it were not for the market distortion known as the Price-Anderson Act, nuclear power companies would not be able to buy insurance. There would be no nuclear plants of the type currently in existence.

      Nuclear power is artificially cheap since everyone pays for their insurance, and for their cleanup costs.

      Incidentally, some timely new CRS reports on Japan and nuclear power:

      “The Japanese Nuclear Incident: Technical Aspects,” March 31, 2011.

      “Nuclear Power Plant Sites: Maps of Seismic Hazards and Population Centers,” March 29, 2011.

      “Japan’s 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami: Economic Effects and Implications for the United States,” March 25, 2011

  13. disdaniel (History)

    A politician makes a political decision against an industry she has long supported after the “impossible” happens aka Fukushima…who could have guessed?

    Is this so hard to understand?

    For those in the industry, perhaps it is obvious how risky nuclear power is. But to the broader public who have been told for 50 years (despite evidence to the contrary) that nuclear is perfectly safe, it no longer looks so safe.

    Call it irrational, call it crazy, call it stupid…it is something the industry must accept and learn from. And FYI the public (globally) is particularly unsympathetic to systems where profits are privitized and costs are socialized. Which perfectly describes the nuclear industry in Japan right now…

  14. Gregory Matteson (History)

    I find your lack of faith in representative government disturbing. That the unwashed masses should doubt the risk assessments of y’all technocrats should come as no surprise, considering how wrong they have been. It is far too easy to point at Fukushima, Chernobyl, or a dozen other “unlikely” accidents, and say that those guys were negligent, but not I. If additional evidence is needed that there is a risk assessment problem, you should be able to convince insurers on the open market, without the assistance of those despised masses.

  15. Hairs (History)

    In terms of electoral popularity I’m sure her decision was completely rational. But in terms of the relative risk per MWh produced compared to other forms of generation then I’m not so sure.

    As Rod Adams has already pointed out, the shutdown of nuclear stations will increase the Germans’ consumption of gas. One side effect of this is that it is likely to perpetuate the operation of Russian reactors, some of which are inherently less safe than the German ones that will be closed. (Gas that could otherwise be used for power production in Russia can be released for export only if there is sufficient nuclear capacity to keep the Russian lights on). Similarly, the German shutdown is likely to perpetuate reactor operation in France and Switzerland, both of whom export to Germany, and even perpetuate nuclear operations in Ukraine (Germany imports some power from north west Poland, which gets some from south east Poland, which gets some from across the border in north west Ukraine).

    In short, shutting down proven German reactors – over which Berlin has regulatory authority – and then (indirectly) replacing that power using reactors elsewhere – which may be less safe and over which Berlin has no authority – doesn’t seem rational at all.

    In my view the solution is to replace the old, more dangerous designs with more modern reactors. If the government’s response to every aeroplane crash was to say that all new aeroplane designs and orders are cancelled, but because of demand for travel they’ll just extend the lives of those old DC3s and Comets, the population would scream. Yet for nuclear reactors the “ban the new, but extend the old (or shut it down without a plan for replacing the generation)” approach seems to be just fine, and nary a journalist questions the contradictory attitudes towards flight safety and reactor safety.

  16. b (History)

    @John F. Ople: “wind and solar are heavily subsidized, increasingly unpopular because of they are eyesores and dangerous ”

    Please try to find a statistic that backs up the “increasingly unpopular” claim. What is “increasingly unpopular”? 20 % of voters?

    While doing that please also find evidence for your rather dumb Russia relation assertions. There are many other reasons, we Germans recently (historically) killed 20 millions of them, to be more friendly with Russia than in the past. We get more gas from Norway than from Russia and would get more gas from Iran if USIsrael would not work against that.

    You max be living in Germany. But I doubt that you are German and that you have any idea of the real political forces in it.

  17. virtualnomad (History)


    A very nice piece. I only managed 2/3rds of it before you evoked a reaction. I live in Austria, a country where Bruno Kriesky’s internationalization of the backwater European province culminated in convincing the IAEA to set up shop here. A referendum of the people who elected Kreisky prohibited nuclear power generation in 1978. The people’s decision became constitutional law. Today, the country is virulently anti nuclear.

    I would argue that Merkel is doing the nuclear industry a favor with the shutdowns. It is a message that human beings are in control of the chain reaction called fission. It is a message that Germans, even with their plants shut down, have enough energy to kraft alternatives.

    We can only hope that Japan can quickly exert such will.

    Is nuclear energy the end all without which human society (politics) would fall over the brink? I personally do not think so. Maybe the Greens have it right.

  18. mark hibbs (History)

    Ben, in this context I assume by irrational that the German government, with all the information, including real-time information, about the operation and design basis of the seven reactors in question, decided to order these reactors shut down right away following the tsunami in Japan–which would not happen in Germany–devastating 3 BWRs with totally different design basis than any German reactor. I am assuming that a decision to shut down a reactor in such a case would have to be predicated upon a certain threat scenario suddenly looming large.

    I agree with you that it may not be irrational at all for the German nation to choose not to go further with nuclear power upon reflection of what happened in Japan and what that accident implied about the amount of risk people have to bear in supporting nuclear power generation. But that is a decision that should be made upon reflection, not in panic 3 days after a LOCA sequence begins unfolding half a world away, about which little verifiable information is coming forth. But that’s how ruling politicians behaved–calculating that the accident should be “spun” to derive the maximum short-term benefit, for Mrs Merkel and her party, on March 27.

  19. FSB (History)

    In principle nuclear power could be made to work in a perfect frictionless world with perfect humans and known risks and free government subsidies 50 years on.

  20. Spruce (History)

    The important part to realise on Merkel’s decision is that it did not work politically. It did not win over any of the opponents of nuclear power, but it did alienate the core supporters. That’s also apparent from the election results. Therefore, the decision seems irrational – but due to its political result, not due to technical reasons.

    As for the results of the decision, the climate is the greatest loser:

    “Traders said utilities had replaced around 75 percent of the nuclear generation gap with coal, spelling an annual rise of 45 million metric tons.”

    That represents increase of 10 percent in German emissions.