Angela Merkel’s nuclear folly fuelled Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine

Originally published in The Globe and Mail, April 28, 2002, p. A13.

For every euro of military aid that Germany has given to Ukraine in the wake of Russia’s invasion, it has paid €200 for Russian energy imports. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has called this “blood money.” Polish Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski recently declared it “inadmissible from a political and moral point of view.”

It is also tragic and unnecessary. For this, we can blame former German chancellor Angela Merkel.

Germany finds itself in an awkward position because of its heavy dependence on Russian coal, oil, and natural gas. While it has done an impressive job in recent years of shifting to renewable energy sources, fossil fuels still account for 77 per cent of Germany’s total consumption, and Russia is by far its single largest source (34 per cent in 2021). Berlin has managed to cut almost a third of its Russian energy imports since the invasion began on Feb. 24, but officials say that it could take two years to wean the country off the source completely.

Berlin’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels is the result of a conscious policy decision over a decade ago to abandon its domestic nuclear-energy supply. In the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, resulting from an earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Tohoku region on March 11, 2011 (colloquially known as “3/11″), Ms. Merkel abruptly decided to close eight of Germany’s nuclear plants and to phase out the rest by 2022. According to The New York Times, she reached this “momentous” decision “after discussing it one night over red wine with her husband.”

In so doing, of course, she was in sync with the global anti-nuclear zeitgeist of the day, which was fuelled by horrific images of destruction and stories of radioactive contamination emerging from Japan. Ms. Merkel was all the more in sync with German voters, whose anti-nuclear attitudes had for decades fuelled the rise of the Green Party. But for her, it represented an about-face.

The decision was also a failure of leadership. As a trained scientist, Ms. Merkel’s response to 3/11 should have been to follow the evidence and to use that evidence to educate her citizenry about the viability of nuclear power.

The Fukushima disaster was certainly an odd impetus for shuttering nuclear plants in Germany, where earthquakes are rare and weak and where tsunamis are non-existent. More importantly, however, the Fukushima disaster should not have happened in the first place. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s official disaster report, if the reactors at Fukushima had been decommissioned on schedule, if the plant had been built at its recommended elevation (rather than moved closer to sea level for operational ease) or – perhaps most significantly – if it had a fully Japanese (rather than partial American) design, the whole incident would have been avoided.

In the United States, where hurricanes and tornados are major threats, backup nuclear-power systems are placed underground. Japanese designs place them on high ground – precisely because of the danger of tsunamis. With vulnerable backup generators placed too close to sea level, one researcher noted, Fukushima Daiichi was a “sitting duck.” Even so, disaster could have also been averted had workers managed to jury-rig an emergency-power supply in time, as they did at Fukushima Daiichi’s near-twin Fukushima Daini plant down the coast, whose backup generators also flooded.

In sum, if any one of four perfectly plausible things had been different in the case of Fukushima, there would have been no nuclear disaster, and the global narrative would have been very different. Politicians would have been singing the praises of nuclear energy for its resilience.

Had Ms. Merkel stayed the course and kept Germany’s remaining nuclear plants in operation, they would be generating 208 terawatt-hours of electricity per year today, enough to replace two-thirds of the country’s current Russian gas imports. If Germany hadn’t ramped down its nuclear-power output from its peak output in 1997, that figure would be 96 per cent. Not only would far less blood money be flowing into Moscow’s coffers today, far less would have been fueling Russia’s corruption, military modernization and geopolitical ambitions over the past decade.

Hindsight is golden, of course. Ms. Merkel did not have the benefit of it while sipping wine with her husband 11 years ago. But one hopes, at least, that she now regrets a decision that was, for her, uncharacteristically unscientific.