Frank Uekötter: “Nuclear Democracy” – an exemplary dispute over nuclear energy

Already at the beginning of this “History of Nuclear Energy in Germany” there is a phrase that first surprises you: “Ultimately, this book examines the success story of German negotiating democracy.” Success story? You didn’t really feel this way. Instead of the citizens’ protracted struggle against what has been nicely called the “nuclear complex”.

Images of demonstrators with banners, occupation strikes against nuclear transport, water cannons and helicopters became too memorable. But when reading the book, it becomes clear that Uekötter is right. Because democracy has been able, after decades of strife and long debate, to come to a compromise supported by wider society. Countless negotiations and talks led to a political solution.

The nuclear state against the ecological movement

If you analyze the social conflicts of those times, it often follows that, on the one hand, we are dealing with the heroes of a powerful nuclear state, large corporations, experts, politicians and advocates of progress who believe in science and technology.

And on the other side was a critical, environmentally oriented counterpublic, colorful and diverse. It quickly becomes clear how sympathies are broken down and what cause is represented in this struggle between good and evil. The authors pat each other, so to speak, on the back and feel good.

A Smart Approach to the Nuclear Dispute

Uekötter’s book is wise, complex and informative. In eight chapters, the historian explains the history of nuclear power from the clash in Brokdorf, through the beginnings and the bomb, to the long farewell that is likely to happen in Germany at the end of 2022.

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It all started so hopefully. While energy producers were initially only moderately interested, research and policy pushed the companies. The Federal Ministry for Atom was founded by Chancellor Adenauer in 1955 – and a year later the SPD cheered at a party conference for the then Secretary of State in the North Rhine-Westphalia Ministry of Economy and Transport, Leo Brandt, when he proclaimed nuclear energy a “second industrial revolution” .

The promise of unlimited energy

Behind this enthusiasm for the atom there was a whole bunch of changes. Nuclear energy promised unlimited energy, visionary planning, progress, but also reconciliation with the past as scientists again caught up with the world elite. Cutting-edge technology and prosperity for the masses. True, there was this gloomy shadow: the bomb. But the proponents of the “peaceful atom” wanted to transform mankind’s most terrible weapons into the power of the future.

Everything collapsed in the mid-1970s, at least in the Federal Republic. It was here that in February 1975 an anti-nuclear protest began in Wyhl am Kaiserstuhl. For the first time, a civic movement was established in which students and farmers forged an alliance. Uekötter analyzes that the resistance movement against nuclear power plants has never been so powerful in terms of the number of people as they want to glorify myths.

NATO’s modernization has brought many more people to the streets. The opponents of nuclear power were a colorful group of farmers, environmentalists, students, political activists, scientists, lawyers – but they clung to arms and did not give up. The protest was passed on from generation to generation – this consistency was an important success factor, notes Uekötter.

Nuclear energy was not as cheap as expected

Things turned out differently in the GDR. This was due to the long tradition of Marxist belief in technological progress. Nuclear energy was not allowed to be discussed in the SED state – the risk of the accident at the Lubmin nuclear power plant near Greifswald in 1975 was kept secret until the end.

In the former Federal Republic, the anti-nuclear movement was institutionalized in 1979 with the founding of the Greens. They moved the protest from the streets to the parliaments – and that was an important factor in boosting the movement. But whether protest and resistance alone would actually lead to success – in other words, a nuclear phase-out – is unlikely.

Because there were many factors associated with the fall. Also the disappointment of the nuclear industry that nuclear power was not as easy and cheap as it dreamed of. Less electricity was needed than expected, there were costly failures such as Kalkar’s rapid breeding, and unresolved issues such as disposal. If nuclear power were as high as assumed in the 1950s, the protest movement would not stand a chance.

“Microprocesses of Democracy”

But the most important thing for finding a compromise was probably the federal structure of the Federal Republic, which ultimately requires discussion for all decisions: permanent negotiations, talks, judicial decisions, compromises, local association meetings. It was difficult, writes Uekötter. But these “democratic microprocesses” prevented this escalation.

Nuclear controversy was gradually reduced to a politically manageable dimension in the mills of negotiating democracy, without losing face to the anti-nuclear movement. “There was finally a protest against the shipment of nuclear waste to Gorleben: a recurring event, effective in the media and annoying, but limited in time and space, and everyone knew where the red lines were. The organism of federal German democracy could easily digest something like that. “

Big problems have been negotiated

What makes this book so interesting outside of the nuclear debate is an analysis of how our democracy works. In the nuclear conflict, the decisive strengths of West German democracy were practice in debate, freedom of speech, an open and diverse media landscape, and the modern right to demonstrate.

The nuclear controversy, writes Uekötter, became a project for a discourse in which the most important issues were negotiated: democratic participation, the right to resist, the rule of law and decision-making powers, energy, threats to people and the environment, and the question of how we want to live in the future. And this discourse design has created a real volume of movement.

Federal German democracy could not settle the question in one big fight, only in social discussion. And in the face of today’s problems, one may wonder if German democracy will once again stand the test of time – and will find the strength to survive the old virtues. Despite all pressures from Pegida for Cancel Culture. Will what awaits us also become a success story? The book makes you think.

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