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.

Lost in Airspace

MH370’s Humbling Reminder about Technology–and its Operators

This piece originally appeared on, March 20, 2014

The evolving tale of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 gets stranger by the minute.  Most likely it will change yet again by the time you finish reading this.  But whatever the ultimate solution to the mystery may be, it is not too early to start asking what it means.

Let’s start with the facts as we think we know them at the moment.  First, there was no outward indication that anything untoward was happening aboard MH370 before it went silent.  Second, shortly after it went silent it began to deviate dramatically from its preprogrammed flight path—again, with no indication of trouble whatsoever.  Third, it managed to cross the Malay Peninsula and head into the Strait of Malacca without attracting any attention or triggering any response before it disappeared from radar.  Fourth, according to the British firm Inmarsat, more than seven hours after departing from Kuala Lumpur it was still airborne somewhere in a giant arc stretching from the southeastern Indian Ocean to Kazakhstan.

One clear lesson here, as Jessica Trisko Darden has recently argued, is that the countries of Southeast Asia are incapable of monitoring, let alone controlling, their airspace.  Nor are they capable of mounting a swift, coordinated search.  They excel, however, at blaming each other.

But there are larger lessons as well—lessons of more than just regional significance.

First, the good news.  There is no evidence, and a rapidly dwindling likelihood, that MH370 vanished as a result of malfunction.  The hardware appears to have worked flawlessly.  There is a reason why modern airliners generally do not fall out of the sky of their own accord: they are marvels of engineering.  The odds of being in a fatal commercial flight are 1 in 3.4 million, and fewer than 1 in 4 of those are the result of mechanical failure.  The only onboard systems whose performance is in question in this case are the transponder, which enables ground operators to identify the aircraft and provides crucial flight information, and the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), which monitors system health and automatically relays faults to maintenance bases.  These stopped working within minutes of the crew’s final, perfectly routine radio contact with ground controllers at 01h19 on the morning of March 8.  It seems increasingly certain that they were switched off deliberately.

As far as we can tell, all of the ground-based hardware worked as well.  Primary radars, secondary radars, and radio communications all worked as designed, and held up their end of the bargain insofar as maintaining contact with MH370 is concerned. We are good at technology, and getting better all the time.  The Huffington Post notwithstanding, there is no valid comparison between MH370 and Amelia Earhart.  Not only was MH370 operating in a modern well-monitored environment, a modern Boeing 777’s avionics make her vintage Lockheed Electra’s look like child’s play.

Next, the bad news.  While the mechanical systems worked well, the human systems failed repeatedly, both at the individual and group levels.  If the disappearance of MH370 was deliberate, then someone—crew member or hijacker—was a certifiable sociopath.  Malaysian military radar operators failed to notice, misperceived, or wilfully ignored its radar track as it headed westward.  Thai radar operators noticed it, but failed to report it because no one askedOther countries may have failed to notice or report radar tracks as well because of incompetence, flawed procedures, or fear of embarrassment.  For days after the plane disappeared there was ample information available indicating that the jet had headed toward the Indian Ocean, but Malaysia and an increasing number of other countries continued to look for it in the Gulf of Thailand.  Officials have obviously bungled messaging and communications, and have given scant reason to hope that they haven’t bungled the search and investigation as well.

Now for the even worse news: much of this could have been prevented.  As Gregg Easterbrook has noted, it is almost inconceivable that almost thirteen years after 9/11 pilots can still turn off transponders.  (In those rare circumstances when it might be desirable to turn off a transponder, there is no technical obstacle to requiring a ground-based signal to do it.)  There is an eight-year-old technology available—Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B—that provides more detailed and more reliable flight and positioning information, but while MH370 had it, and while amateurs on the ground picked up its signal, air traffic controllers did not.  Countries have proven slow to embrace it.  In the United States, the FAA does not expect to adopt it before 2020.  Continuous-broadcast GPS is another readily-available technology that some airlines use to monitor their fleets, but as Peter Parrish, vice-president of operations for Latitude Technologies has lamented, “For some reason, the major carriers continue to rely exclusively on old technology to track their aircraft when one of our boxes could be tucked into an out-of-the-way spot on the aircraft to report location on a continuous basis, including on an accelerated basis right up to the point of impact in the event of a crash.”

In one sense, this worse news is not surprising.  While technology advances by leaps and bounds, improvement in our mental capacity to perceive and analyze the world takes place on an evolutionary timescale.  Cognitive, affective, bureaucratic, social, and cultural barriers to learning are ubiquitous. I have spent most of my professional career trying to understand why national leaders—who are almost always very smart people—make so many mistakes, and the answer is that they are human.  As former Secretary of State Dean Rusk said to me toward the end of his life, “I’ve met and worked with a good many people whose names are in the history books or in the headlines.  I have never met a demigod or a superman.  I have only seen relatively ordinary men and women groping to deal with the problems with which they are faced.”

We have come to appreciate in the nuclear age that our rapidly increasing technological sophistication—which has brought to us benefits such as safe, reliable air travel—carries with it also great potential cost, not only in the form of our ability to destroy, but, as my colleague Thomas Homer-Dixon has pointed out, in the form of vulnerable, tightly-connected, inadequately resilient systems.  What we have great difficulty appreciating, apparently, is that the human element is often the weakest link in those systems.  Academic political science, by and large, has not helped.  To the extent that leaders are trained in or advised on international politics at all, they are generally encouraged to assume that their counterparts elsewhere are fully-informed; that they are “rational”; that they value political survival above all else; and that with enough “credible” threats or incentives they can always be “deterred” or “compelled.”  They are not encouraged to think of them—or of themselves, for that matter—as ill-informed, confused, emotional, fallible, and perhaps even slightly mad some of the time.  Nor are they encouraged to think of the complex departments, ministries, agencies, and militaries over which they have nominal authority as reliably dysfunctional to at least a certain extent one hundred percent of the time.

In a tense, heavily-armed region such as East or Southeast Asia, it would be a good idea for leaders to reflect on the limited capacities of individuals and organizations.  The bizarre story of MH370 should make the importance of that painfully clear.