Angela Merkel’s Biggest Mistake: Closing Nuclear Plants

Updated at 10:43 a.m. ET on December 8, 2021.

In Germany and here in the United States, politicians who want to be seen as environmentalists are increasing greenhouse-gas emissions by forcing the premature closing of serviceable nuclear-power plants.

You might think of Germany as a global environmental leader. But if you look at actual practices, you’ll see a different story. Germany burns a lot of coal, ranking ninth in world coal consumption in 2020.

That other industrial pioneer, Britain, burns almost no coal. In May 2019, mainland Britain went a week without burning any coal at all. The difference between Britain and Germany—and between Germany’s own rhetoric and its record—can be traced to one fateful decision by outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel: her decision in 2011 to phase out Germany’s nuclear plants.

A decade ago, Germany operated 17 nuclear reactors. They produced nearly one-quarter of the country’s electricity. Carbon-free electricity from nuclear power enabled unified Germany to retire the ultra-dirty power plants of the former East Germany without disruption to consumers. Throughout her first six years as chancellor, Merkel had championed Germany’s nuclear industry, dismissing objections as “absurd.” According to Merkel’s allies, she was jolted out of that view by the wreck of the nuclear-power plant in Fukushima prefecture in Japan. In March 2011, an earthquake and tsunami triggered the worst radiation release since the Chernobyl accident in 1986. More than 150,000 Japanese people had to be evacuated from their homes. The New York Times explained the context at the time: “Unlike other world leaders, she is a trained scientist, with a Ph.D. in physics. She reached the momentous decision to phase out nuclear power by 2022 after discussing it one night over red wine with her husband, Joachim Sauer, a physicist and university professor, at their apartment in central Berlin.”

You don’t want to say that any of that is untrue. But it’s also not the whole truth. Merkel had a pretty easy time in her first few years as chancellor. Her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, had cracked the hardest problem left behind by German unification: persistently high unemployment. He drove through tough reforms to streamline Germany’s labor-market rules and social-welfare benefits. The reforms were not immediately popular. Schröder lost the chancellorship in the election of 2005. But as the Schröder reforms went into effect, Germans went back to work. The unemployment rate dropped from more than 11 percent in 2005 to less than 6 percent in 2011, despite the shock of the global financial crisis.

Merkel coasted on Schröder’s work through those early years, with approval ratings in the 70s. But then her luck ran out. The 2008–09 financial crisis touched Germany comparatively lightly, but it hit Germany’s European trading partners hard. In 2010 and 2011, the countries of Southern Europe plunged into debt crises that forced a tough choice on Germany: rescue them, or risk seeing the euro currency zone dissolve. Under that pressure, Merkel’s popularity sagged. Her disapproval numbers reached their peak of 43 percent in…

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