© 2024 WKNO FM
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Japan Events Revive Germany's Anti-Nuclear Stance


It's not a good time to be running a country right now, if you rely on nuclear power. The disaster unfolding in Japan is giving some governments second thoughts about the safety of their reactors. Germany has temporarily shut down some of its oldest plants and says it's now rethinking its energy strategy.

NPR's Philip Reeves went to a town where this is an especially sensitive issue.

(Soundbite of church bells)

PHILIP REEVES: Dusk is creeping in. Mist drifts down from the hills. An old man shuffles across the cobbled square, towards the church for evening prayers.

This is Schonau, a town tucked in a valley in Germany's Black Forest. Tourists come here to ski, to walk through the pines and forget about the world.

But some things can't be forgotten, even here.

Mr. SEBASTIAN SLADEK: I remember it was a very warm and sunny spring. And we, as children, had to stay at home.

REEVES: Sebastian Sladek was nine when the Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened.

Chernobyl is several thousand miles away, yet Schonau was contaminated by it.

Sladek remembers policemen coming to the market and taking away the vegetables.

Mr. SLADEK: I was afraid, I really was afraid, because nobody really knew what's going on. The police officers who are collecting the vegetables had no idea of what they should tell to the people. They said we just have orders here to collect the vegetables.

REEVES: Even the mushrooms in the forest were poisoned.

Mr. SLADEK: Polluted. You could not eat them for many, many years.

REEVES: Schoenau's few thousand residents tend to be Catholic, conservative and elderly. Yet some were so outraged by the Chernobyl disaster, they decided to act. They wanted their town free of nuclear power. They bought the town's grid, and set up their own company selling nuclear-free electricity, mostly generated by hydro-plants in Norway. It now employs 50 people managed by Sebastian Sladek. Sladek says the company's benefiting from the horrific scenes now playing out in Japan.

Mr. SLADEK: A lot of new customers coming to us.

REEVES: Sladek takes no pleasure in this.

Mr. SLADEK: Depressive emotions, because we are a company since 25 years. We warn about the dangers of nuclear power. Politicians always say look at these idiots, they don't believe in technics(ph). And now we are right. But in this case, I hate being right.

REEVES: Nuclear power's long been controversial among Germans.

(Soundbite of chanting demonstrators in German)

REEVES: Tens of thousands protested after the government decided to extend the lives of Germany's 17 atomic plants for about a decade, abandoning an earlier plan to phase them out by 2021. Now, thanks to the crisis in Japan, the government's done an abrupt about-turn. Chancellor Angela Merkel's declared a three-month moratorium on those extensions while safety tests are conducted at Germany's nuclear plants.

Speaking in parliament yesterday, Merkel said it's time for Germany to push ahead with its long-term goal of converting to green energy sources.

Chancellor ANGELA MERKEL (Germany): (Through Translator) We will use the moratorium period to drive the change in energy policy and accelerate it wherever possible.

REEVES: Seven of Germany's oldest power plants have also been shut down, and taken off the grid for at least three months. The country's anti-nuclear activists welcome this - but want more. They concede Germany's not nearly as seismically active as Japan.

But, says Andreas Bohling of Greenpeace, earthquakes are not the only issue. There's toxic nuclear waste and the threat of a terrorist attack on a nuclear reactor.

Mr. ANDREAS BOHLING (Greenpeace): That's why we think it's that dangerous for lots of people, maybe millions of people, that we should switch off them as fast as possible and really push the alternatives which exist.

REEVES: There's another key issue in play here. Germany's about to hold three important regional elections. Merkel's opponents say the nuclear moratorium's just a political ploy, an attempt to win votes for her Christian Democratic Union Party.

Back in Schonau, as the lights powered by his grid twinkle in the evening gloom, Sebastian Sladek's plagued with doubt. He thinks Merkel will have Germany's nuclear power stations back in full swing once the elections are over.

Mr. SLADEK: I am skeptical. I think after this three months, she will bring a huge number of them back to the grid. I am sure about it.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Stuttgart.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.