Atomfrei: Angela Merkel’s Decision to Phase Out German Nuclear Power — Chetan Hebbale

On March 11th, 2011, the largest earthquake in Japan’s history set off a tsunami which breached the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The flooding destroyed the plant’s power generators preventing cool water from cycling to the hot nuclear core. Fearing a meltdown, Japan’s prime minister declared a nuclear emergency and ordered the evacuation of 150,000 residents living within a few mile radius.[1]

Nearly 6,000 miles away, Chancellor Angela Merkel watched on in horror. Only three days after the Fukushima incident, on March 14th, 2011, she made the decision to set Germany on the path to become atomfrei – non-nuclear.[2] At the time, nuclear power supplied nearly a quarter of Germany’s electricity.[3]

The legacy of Merkel’s decision to phase out Germany’s nuclear power fleet casts a long shadow on Europe’s largest economy today. The German’s are in the midst of an energy crisis as Russian gas flows have been cut off raising electricity prices by 60% from 2020[4], prompting industrial slowdowns, layoffs, and nationwide economic contraction. Making matters worse, Germany’s 2045 net-zero pledge is in jeopardy as greenhouse gas emissions have increased nearly 5%, the most in 30 years[5], due to the increased use of coal to fill the energy gap.[6]

More than 10 years later, this consequential decision is ripe for analysis. Did Merkel act too abruptly without sufficiently considering the pros and cons, or did she make the right decision with the information she had at the time? The process of coming to a decision on the nuclear phaseout reveals a number of strengths and weaknesses about Merkel as a leader and the range of leadership styles she employed.

Strengths of the Decision-Making Process

Leveraging Expert Power

The first strength was that Merkel leaned in on a skills-based leadership approach because she had a Ph.D. in physics.[7] Unlike her contemporaries, like Barack Obama, David Cameron, and Nicolas Sarkozy, who had backgrounds primarily in law, she was an actual scientist who wrote her dissertation on quantum chemistry and was thus able to understand and speak the technical language around nuclear power. Recently, she said, “you know from me that with my training as a physicist, I of course apportion a great deal of weight to academic advice and use it myself.” [8]

She was able to exercise her credentials as a form of “expert power” where her decision on weighing the safety of nuclear power had more credibility. Others in the government deferred to her expert power with Martin Faulstich, chairman of the German Advisory Council on the Environment, saying at the time, “As a scientist, Merkel understood climate change and the dangers of nuclear power.”[9] A prominent journalist covering her at the time, noted “Her years of research instilled in her the conviction that she has a very good sense of how likely events are, not only in physics but also in politics.”[10]

Being Flexible in Policies and Beliefs

The second strength was that she decided to pursue a policy that had popular support even though it meant flip-flopping on her and her party’s previous support of nuclear power – this underscored the                                                                                                               seriousness and gravity of the issue that Fukushima raised.  The German anti-nuclear movement has existed for decades beginning in the 1970s. It gained broader public support following the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986 resulting in a “nuclear consensus” with Germany’s large utilities that the country’s nuclear power stations would not operate beyond 32 years, leading to a full phaseout by 2022.[11]

When Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, regained power in 2009 she helped push through a reversal of the nuclear phaseout, extending the operating life of Germany’s 17 nuclear power plants for an average of 12 years. This was a deeply unpopular decision with the public resulting in tens of thousands taking to the streets in nationwide protests in the fall of 2010. A survey from the newspaper Die Zeit at the time found that nearly 50% of the population was against any extension of Germany’s nuclear power plants. Just a few months later, Fukushima unfolded, prompting Merkel to turn her back on nuclear saying, ““Fukushima changed my attitude towards nuclear energy.”[12]

While this was portrayed as a U-turn that was done by Merkel to shift to wherever the prevailing political winds were, those close to her describe the decision as closer to a genuine “awakening”.[13] In contrast to her carefully calculated response to the Eurozone crisis, she demonstrated little hesitation in reversing her previous position from just a few months ago and taking on her party and the powerful utility industry. This displayed an acute sense of self-awareness and self-regulation not to be locked into an ideological or policy position, but to be open to change and recognize the moods, emotions, and drives of the nation around her in the moment.

Visionary Leadership

The third strength was demonstrating transformational leadership by articulating a vision for a sustainable Germany that would become the leader in renewable energy to replace the need for nuclear power. “We want to end the use of nuclear energy and reach the age of renewable energy as fast as possible,” Merkel said as she announced the nuclear moratorium.[14] To do so, Merkel called upon to Germans to lead an Energiewende, an “energy turn” or “energy transition”, through a long-term societal and economic transformation to create a climate-neutral energy system by 2045.[15] She laid out a bold vision with an ambitious series of targets to double the share of renewable energy from ~16%[16] at the time to 35% of electricity generation by 2020, 50% in 2030, 65% in 2040, and more than 80% by 2050.[17]

Merkel seized the national fear around nuclear power to inspire the nation to become a renewable energy powerhouse instead, thus staking her credibility on a multi-decade energy transition. In rallying her supporters, she proclaimed, “If we succeed, [the Energiewende] – and I’m convinced of it – will become another German export hit. And I’m also convinced that if any country can succeed with this Energiewende, then it’s Germany.”[18]

Atomfrei: Angela Merkel’s Decision to Phase Out German Nuclear Power — Chetan Hebbale


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