Bonn, Germany—On the afternoon of April 29, 1986, West Germany's Interior Minister Friedrich Zimmermann walked out of a meeting with the Commission on Radiological Protection and spoke to a TV reporter.
"There is no danger," Zimmermann assured millions of anxious viewers. "Chernobyl is 2,000 kilometers away."
Zimmermann's words carried authority—and not just because of his high office. He looked authoritative, dressed in a dark gray suit, white shirt, matching dark tie, and steel-framed aviator glasses on his plump face. He also spoke with the cold command of a lawyer, which he had been before entering politics.
The only element out of place in his reassuring performance that day was a large oil painting on the wall behind him. It depicted storm clouds gathering above churning seas and its omen of dread proved to be the most accurate part of the interview. Chernobyl, in Soviet Ukraine, was 300 miles closer than Zimmermann had said. Even as he spoke, a radioactive cloud released by the worst nuclear power disaster in history was over East Germany and drifting west.
Like all revolutions, the German Energiewende was set in motion by many factors and its course altered by a multitude of events and actors along the way. A few key moments stand out, however, and the Chernobyl catastrophe is one of them. To fully understand the Energiewende, and to anticipate its future twists and turns, it's essential to understand the role Chernobyl played in shaping the German public's view of nuclear power.
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Take Marianne Störmer, for example, my seatmate on a trip crossing a swath of northern Germany. She was a young schoolteacher in Hamburg when the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl exploded and burned out of control for 10 days, and she vividly recalled that time of angst. "A lot of radiation came over here so you had to be very careful about what you ate," she said. "Milk was contaminated. I had always gathered mushrooms in the forest, but we were told not to do that anymore."
Now in her mid-fifties, Störmer describes herself as a "typical Bürgher"—German shorthand for a cliché of middle-class and middle-of-the-road sensibilities from an earlier era. She looked the part: conservatively dressed with medium-length brown hair, plain-rimmed glasses and a stout build. A physics teacher, she had admired the engineering and scientific brilliance that made it possible to harness energy from splitting atoms. She had believed in nuclear power—until Chernobyl.
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The worst part, she said, was the effect on her 11-, 12- and 13-year-old students. "They were so frightened. So were the parents. They asked me: Should the children play outside? Should they not?"
Störmer gazed out the window and looked at the passing fields. Then she turned back and shook her head in disgust. "Nuclear," she said deliberately, "is a very ugly sort of energy."
A group of German farmers reached that conclusion a decade before Störmer did. In 1975, the conservative residents of southern Germany's grape-growing region occupied the site of a planned nuclear power station, forcing its cancellation. A decade later, when they were ordered to destroy their crops because of radioactive fallout from Chernobyl, they believed their nuclear doubts had been confirmed.
As time passed and memories of Chernobyl faded, however, the German public's wider outcry against nuclear power receded. Through the mid-1990s, the nuclear industry and the ruling conservative government fought nuclear opponents to a standoff. No new plants were built, but no existing facilities were closed. In 2000, a new government passed the comprehensive legislation that became the foundation for the Energiewende, and it included the gradual phase out of nuclear power. But that part of the law was overturned a decade later by the center-right coalition led by the current chancellor, Angela Merkel, who also extended the life of aging nuclear plants by up to 14 years.
Merkel's decision triggered Germany's largest antinuclear protests since Chernobyl. But still, the public remained divided on the issue and the fate of nuclear power remained up in the air. Until Fukushima.