Contrast this with the history of outright and hidden subsidies for the nuclear industry: In research, development, and training; through cheap loans and loan guarantees for investment; government support for managing the fuel cycle and storing nuclear waste; and by society and future generations bearing the legacy costs and the catastrophic risks of nuclear technology. The economic case for nuclear power is dismal, as studies show in Germany as well as the U.S. or the United Kingdom. Were all of these costs reflected in the price of nuclear power, not one plant would run; the cost of insurance for the catastrophic losses alone would ensure that even existing nuclear power plants would be taken off the grid.
In addition, there is also a security policy price for nuclear power. The misnamed Non-Proliferation Treaty provides a civilian veil for military nuclear weapons programs. The link from nuclear power to the proliferation of nuclear technology and materials to rogue states and potentially non-state terrorist groups is not new, but with recent events for instance in Pakistan, North Korea, or Iran it is attracting renewed attention.
Given these facts and arguments, it is not surprising that not only the German public is opposed to nuclear power – over the years, opposition rarely fell below 70 percent in opinion polls. Most business-owners and managers in Germany’s Mittelstand, the often family-owned small and medium-sized businesses that are the backbone of the economy and technology development, not only share in the dislike of nuclear power but also in the mistrust of monopoly powers that the four big operators of nuclear power plants enjoy. A clear majority of government employees with academic degrees is solidly against nuclear power. The current German federal government also misread elite opinion when it unnecessarily extended the running time of existing nuclear plants in September 2010.
A member of the ruling conservative coalition, Josef Göppel, said when he voted against the party line that the extension of nuclear power carried the seed for the electoral demise of the ruling parties, notably his Christian Social Union in Bavaria, and the Christian Democrats in the rest of Germany. After Fukushima, his comment seems prescient, but even before the accident, the public anger and elite opposition to nuclear power was high.
The tragic accident in Fukushima merely provided the starting gun for the fight to end nuclear power that is currently underway in Germany. Given the continued need for subsidies, the need for secrecy and the lack of transparency, the treatment of critics and victims of nuclear power, and its accidents in Germany and abroad, it is entirely rational for German voters, taxpayers, and utility customers to demand a phase-out of nuclear power, and to switch to suppliers of renewable power in the thousands every week.
The forces opposing the great energy shift in Germany, the die-hard protagonists of nuclear power, are diminishing in number but still large in voice, finance, influence, and access to political power. They are motivated partly by economic interests, for a number of them benefit from the subsidies going their way, but partly also by a fear of the future energy supply structure they cannot or do not want to comprehend. The digital generations born after the Internet may have no difficulty envisioning a marriage of the power grid with modern communication and signal-processing technologies to produce a self-stabilizing grid with distributed generation and storage, and demand response able to cope with the variations of renewable supply and demand. Older folks and mentally conservative people may fear innovations and change they do not understand, but they will find themselves on the wrong side of history.