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We Should Learn from Germans on Nuclear Power

The Germans added a good dose of cheer to my recent vacation by turning out in large numbers to demand a quick end to nuclear power in their country.

Approximately 120,000 Germans demonstrated nationwide during the Easter weekend, using the twenty-fifth anniversary of Chernobyl to pressure Chancellor Angela Merkel to speed up her timetable for phasing out nuclear power. Much to my delight, the largest turnout was in Lower Saxony, the state I was born in and where I was visiting family friends during Easter.

The Easter mobilization was a follow-up to large-scale demonstrations in March, for which 250,000 people gathered around the nation, including more than 100,000 in Berlin alone. Indeed, anti-nuclear-power sentiment has become so mainstream in Germany that you can pick up “Atomkraft? Nein Danke” stickers and lapel buttons (souvenirs from my trip) at a completely apolitical chain store.

In some sense, the fight against nuclear power in Germany is a continuation of the sixties protest movements there. The key political formation to emerge from this era was the Green party, which has helped shape the national agenda for the past three decades.

“Surveys had shown West Germans split down the middle over nuclear energy’s viability—that in itself a plaudit for the anti-nuclear movement,” writes Paul Hockenos in “Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic,” a definitive account of post-war Germany that I’ve just finished reading. “The combined efforts of the citizens’ initiatives, the social movements, and the Greens had turned nuclear power into a national issue. But after Chernobyl, public opinion in West Germany swerved dramatically against nuclear power.”

And like Chernobyl, Fukushima has again galvanized the German public. Riding on concerns in the shadow of that disaster, the Greens recently captured power in the key state of Badem-Wurttemberg (where I spent the first half of my vacation), ousting the conservative Christian Democrats after more than half a century. Merkel felt the public pressure, promising to end nuclear power but on a timetable that left many dissatisfied.

If only we were anywhere near phasing out nuclear power this side of the Atlantic. Instead, the Obama Administration, with the consent of Republicans, is pressing forward with more than $50 billion in loan guarantees for new nuclear reactors. For heaven’s sake, even the Chinese government has paused its nuclear power program!

The only way to get U.S. officialdom to change its mindset on nuclear power is to mobilize in similar numbers to the Germans here—half a million people for a country our size.

“The question now is: Can grassroots people power win the war against nuclear subsidies?” nuclear activist Harvey Wasserman asks in the latest issue of The Progressive.

We need to make sure that the answer is in the affirmative.

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