German Nuclear Angst
Why is the public opinion on nuclear power so different in Germany compared to other countries?
Before I try to create an answer, I think it makes sense to reference the article that this question was based upon from Spiegel Online International.
My first response: well, it is quite understandable that human beings are afraid of something that they cannot see, feel, hear, taste or smell. Every religion on our planet is based on this "nature of men". But this case is even worse, for, other than god, radiation is not about just believing that something unnoticeable exists … we have proof that it does. And: we created it by ourselves! A monster, that we cannot sense! What could be more terrifying?
And: this angst is not even irrational – we have scientific proof that our invisible monster is alive. It has materialized already again and again. There are cases of radiation disease, cancer, contaminated and deserted regions, inedible plants, poisoned animals and so on. And we learnt, that it can take up to ten thousands of years until this monster deceases – how can we expect a human being with a life span of less than a hundred years to imagine this without starting to worry?
I would even argue that angst, being a high-quality genetic sensor for the purpose of self-protection anyway, is quite a good advisor in this case.
The article identifies angst as the motor of public reactions in Germany, and speculates about this angst being culturally intrinsic to the German people. This might be true to some extent – I actually don't know if it is.
This speculation is heavily based on the fact that Geiger Counters in Germany are currently sold out. Well – the question is, how many of them were actually in stock. A Geiger Counter is nothing that would normally be on a citizen's shopping list, so it is safe to assume, that shelves were not really filled with this piece of technology. If people in Germany would all of a sudden start to buy gas masks or parachutes or coconut palms, the effect would probably be the same.
So this is no reliable clue for angst – but very much for something else. Think about it: why would you buy a Geiger Counter? Or any kind of meter? Obviously because you want to convince yourself. To get confirmation on something with your own eyes. That is essentially it.
Just like a thermometer is unable to keep you warm or a barometer to bring more sunshine, a Geiger Counter is of no help to solve a radiation problem or to cure a disease or to protect you from any other consequence – all it does is to detect and provide you with certainty. Is it fair to assume that this is common knowledge? I guess so.
The fact that such a device is not really cheap (€ 300 – 500) may give a second clue on what is behind this sudden "demand for certainty": I am pretty sure that not angst is the point here – it is mistrust. The German people are simply done believing what they are told by their leading politicians … and the media, too.
This is not because Germans are so much more intelligent than people from other countries (I don't believe they are … why should they?); it is the consequence of a long-lasting history and ongoing series of promises that turned out to be fairytales, again and again. To cut it short: we have a constant feeling of being lied to … and in the recent past we got confirmation.
Currently, our leading politicians cultivate a habit to revise statements that they made just yesterday, change personal opinions and even don't hesitate to bend existing law, whenever it seems opportune or profitable to do so. Both the frequency and the amplitude of this behavior has increased so rapidly, that watching our government feels like watching a carousel.
- at the time of reunion arround 1990 our chancellor Kohl promised "blooming landscapes" in the area of the former German Democratic Republic. As of today, far more people have migrated from the Eastern counties to the West than vice versa. Those who stayed still earn less money for the same kind of work than their Western colleagues. Unemployment rates have risen instead.
- the unemployment rate has artificially been decreased in Germany – simply by changing the statistical basis.
- lately our finance minister announced simplifications for our tax law (we have the most complicated tax law in the world!). Mathematically every German tax payer now has app. € 20 more … per year! At the same time the duty of making a tax declaration every year has been changed to every two years. But as almost every citizen gets a refund after his declaration, this change of law only helps the government – not the citizen.
- The Guttenberg-Affair: our former defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, aristocrat, extremely rich, smart, young, good-looking, promising, star appeal, everybody's darling (especially of the media and Germany's leading yellow press paper BILD). Then somebody noticed that his thesis contained significant amounts of content that he had just copied without citing the sources. Guttenberg publicly claimed that he did not copy or steal content intentionally, but the internet community proved otherwise. Chancellor Merkel tried to protect him by saying "I need a defense minister, not a scientist" and showed her real affection for German quality science. After two weeks, the proof was so overwhelming that Guttenberg had to resign. And his degree was revoked by the university as well.
- and recently: Chancellor Merkel extended the lifetime of german nuclear power plants by law, probably due to high pressure from the power industry. She has a degree in physics, so obviously she is a pro in this matter. Now – after Fukushima – she changes sides and orders to suspend the seven oldest reactors for three months to check their safety (which was never an issue before). Well – in three months a very important election will have happened … one that she simply cannot afford to lose if she wants to stay in office.
- With every election, the overall number of voters gets smaller. More and more German citizens choose not to vote at all.
I could continue this list for quite some time … but I think it has become clear that this is not about angst – it is about mistrust.