This past weekend I traveled to Wiesbaden, Germany to visit with my husband’s extended family. After living in a hotel room for three weeks, hugs & kisses, home cooked meals and family time were much appreciated. We had so much fun visiting the local market, walking the banks of the Rhine and celebrating Ted’s Grandmother’s 70th birthday. There are so many aspects of German culture and family life that I absolutely adore.
During our weekend adventure I learned that in much of Southern Germany there are hot springs that are said to have therapeutic qualities. In fact, in Wiesbaden, there is literally hot water spraying from the earth right in the middle of downtown. I regret that I wasn’t able to get a photo, probably because I was in such shock about the discrepancy in Germany’s nuclear phase out and the love of these “healthy” springs.
To make matters even more interesting, some of the springs in nearby towns are not just heated by the decay of radioactive elements in the earth’s crust (as all hot springs are), but actually contain measurable levels of radioactive materials– and are still considered healthy and therapeutic, and are not feared at all (note: they are healthy and therapeutic and should not be feared at all). So of course I was left wondering, why is it that when nature heats up water with radioactive materials it’s good, but when humans heat up water with radioactive materials it’s bad??? As scientist Ben McGee expertly explains in this video, there is no difference between a natural gamma ray and a man made one.
A theme that has emerged in my conversations with folks here in Germany is that humans are somehow “bad” and “stupid”- and therefore cannot use nuclear energy responsibly. I think this attitude is grounded in the lessons of WWII, which are ever present in Germany, and spoken about openly and often. There is a sense that the best way to avoid the atrocities committed by the Nazi party is to actively talk about and learn from the experience, and ensure that humans do not go down a similar path again in the future. In this spirit of open dialogue I have some thoughts on why Germany has a unique relationship with nuclear technologies, and want to suggest that we should all try to understand and be compassionate about their perspective whether we agree with it or not.
Nuclear energy has all of the factors that modern Germans have been taught to see as red flags: heavy government regulation and involvement, only a small group who truly understands and can control the science, confidentiality (which comes with safely handling nuclear materials), and the potential for a big, dramatic accident on the global stage.
Add to this the fact that the first man made nuclear technologies were weapons created explicitly in response to the Axis powers of WWII, including Germany and Japan, and you can start to see why they have some serious cultural hangups regarding nuclear energy. It’s really no wonder the events at Fukushima disturbed Germany so deeply.
I think this fear of having a cultural “blind spot” has inadvertently allowed for the acceptance of more destructive energy sources (namely lignite- which has been growing rapidly since the phase out started) due to the fact that they are simple, decentralized technologies and therefore don’t set off the cultural “red flags.” Despite the growth of renewables, the use of fossil fuels is still on the rise here in Germany (and worldwide).
Ultimately the determining factor in the grand German energy experiment will be the limits of the technologies against the goals of the phase out (to both reduce nuclear energy and green house emissions, while growing the economy). Unfortunately, you cannot increase lignite use and reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the same time. You also cannot increase renewables beyond a certain threshold and maintain the grid stability needed to sustain the amount of manufacturing that exists in this country, much less grow it.
It is very possible that Germany will succeed in phasing out nuclear by 2022, but it will be primarily replaced with fossil fuels if they plan to keep the lights on and the factories running. Or if they make the transition without dramatically increasing reliance on fossils, they will lose their standing as Europe’s economic powerhouse and manufacturing leader. I have a feeling more fossils (supplemented with renewables) will continue to be the path.
Interestingly, in Germany’s quest to embrace more “natural” energy sources there is even some backlash against renewables. I jumped out of the car and ran across a field to get a shot of this graffiti at the base of a wind turbine that reads “Not of Nature.” I’m starting to realize that at least a portion of Germany wants to turn the clock back 100 years or more and give up electricity all together. This is a similar sentiment I have heard from many of my friends in the U.S.
The antidote for this yearning for the past, which I wish I was more capable of communicating to the people I’ve met here, is that we actually live in a pretty great time. In fact, despite the world’s growing population, we live in the most peaceful time of human history. So while, yes, we humans occasionally do some messed up stuff, for the most part we cooperate and work towards the greater good. In fact, we are so busy trying to improve the world we live in, often we forget to take notice of all the progress we’ve made.
Sometimes I get overwhelmed thinking about how incredible it is that every day we all wake up and agree to drive on the same side of the road. Or the amount of cooperation it takes to build a single building- and there are whole cities full of them everywhere. We have created governments, businesses, transportation, the internet, smartphones, art, music, language- all because we thrive on creativity, cooperation and connection. We work diligently to continue to improve our creations.
Humans are really quite amazing. We are also fundamentally a part of nature- not separate from it. And our technologies are an important extension of our vastly creative species.
We take care of each other; we create electricity so that we can have access to clean water, education and healthcare. We lose sleep over the pollution and waste we are leaving future generations, and keep looking for ways to resolve these problems. We are undeniably connected to each other and to the environment. I honestly think we humans are trustworthy and “good” enough to use nuclear technologies for the benefit of the environment and human prosperity. Not to say that we won’t occasionally mess up – we will- but if history is a good indicator, we will also continue to learn from our mistakes and grow our knowledge and abilities, just as we always have.
Really, the times when we humans are at our worst is when our basic needs aren’t being met, or we feel threatened (usually by a person or group who’s basic needs aren’t being met). The historical takeaway that I have gotten from my recent education on German history is that we who do have our needs met, should work to keep people and nations out of poverty and scarcity so that they don’t have to turn to desperate measures to survive and thrive. In the end, we are all part of the same human family, all trying to prosper and protect our shared home.
You can hear more of my thoughts on the cultural issues behind Germany’s nuclear phase out on the most recent edition of The Atomic Show, entitled “Women are empowered by reliable energy.”