Atomic Phobia

Amid a global revival in the nuclear-power industry, there remains one country dead set against it: Germany. A 2002 Nuclear Exit Law, shutting down the country's 27 reactors by 2021, will remain in place, Chancellor Angela Merkel has promised--despite having campaigned against the law during her 2005 election run. Says her Environment minister, Sigmar Gabriel, a Social Democrat: "Nuclear power is last century's technology."

Never mind that nuclear power now accounts for 28 percent of Germany's electrical capacity, or that phasing out nuclear plants will mean greater dependence on gas imports from an increasingly menacing Russia. They have to go. In other nations, even many environmentalists are warming to nuclear power as an emissions-free weapon against climate change, particularly as improving technology greatly reduces the threat of meltdowns. Not so in Germany. "Logical arguments don't count," says Christian Wössmann, lobbyist for the German nuclear operators' association.

Germany has stopped funding most nuclear research, a field in which it was once a leader. Siemens, the technology giant, has sold its nuclear division to Aveva of France. And the $13 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, a grand test of fusion technology, will now be built in France instead of Germany, where it got its start.

Why does antinuclear feeling run so deep? For many Germans in their 40s and 50s, the anti-nuke demonstrations of the 1980s were a coming-of-age ritual. Germany's Green Party--Europe's strongest--was founded as an anti-nuke movement. After losing voters to the Greens in droves, the Socialists years ago adopted the nuclear shutdown as their cause, too. It's now mainstream: 62 percent of Germans support the Nuclear Exit Law or want to accelerate it, according to a recent Forsa poll. Even Merkel's Christian Democrats are trying to be more "hip" with young and urban voters by toning down support for atomic power.

Still, Germany's lonely stand is tough to explain. After all, a referendum in equally green Switzerland just rejected a nuclear moratorium, and both Belgium and Sweden are reconsidering their German-style phaseouts. In Germany, for whatever reason, fears of environmental disaster seem unusually acute: from the 1980s obsession with "Waldsterben" (dying forests) to today's fears of "electro-smog" (toxic radiation allegedly emanating from consumer electronics) and "microdust" (invisible pollutant particles), the less visible and more unlikely a danger is, the more dread it seems to generate. German psychologists have diagnosed "environmental angst" and "ecochondria" to describe the resulting migraines and depression, which are especially prevalent among the young.

The nuclear lobby is fighting to at least delay the shutdown. RWE, one of four German nuclear-plant operators, hopes to use a small loophole in the law to extend the life of the Biblis A reactor, scheduled for a 2008 shutdown, at least until 2010. By then, a Europe-wide nuclear-plant construction boom will likely be in full swing. Nuclear power's proponents hope Germans' fears will ease by then, but no one is counting on it.