Great Power and Great Responsibility: Belgium’s Nuclear Energy Quandaries

I don’t know about you, but every time I start wading into a news story featuring nuclear anything, I start feeling like we, collectively, as humans, have basically been a toddler that somehow unlocked grandpa’s gun cabinet for the last 75 years or so – we’ve found this Shiny Thing that occasionally goes bang in exciting ways and now we want to see what else we can do with it. And we have absolutely no idea what it’s really capable of. Except instead of just killing like, ourselves, or a loved one, it’s capable of destroying the entire earth. So… more like a toddler that’s got into grandpa’s nuclear warhead cabinet, really.

baby mushroom cloud

I’m really good at metaphors.

Nuclear fission, the process that lies at the core of both atomic bombs and nuclear reactors, has fundamentally altered our world in so many ways that it would be a completely unrecognisable place without it. And while it’s made significant advances in science, engineering and medicine possible, when it comes to associations it’s hard to get past the image of a mushroom cloud and the names of places like Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Chernobyl and Fukushima.

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On the other hand, it gave us radioactive spiders which would eventually lead to this amazing cinematic moment, so it’s not all bad. [x]

It’s probably deeply unfair to associate nuclear warfare with nuclear power station disasters, one being intentional destruction and killing with weapons and the other being the accidental result of unforeseen circumstances in otherwise useful infrastructure, but the connections seem a lot more concrete once one gets into discussions about the security issues surrounding nuclear power stations. Discussions like the ones Belgium is currently facing after the death of a guard at a Belgian nuclear facility two days after the attacks in Brussels on the 22nd of March 2016. The incident sparked fears of sabotage to a nuclear power station despite the local prosecutor ruling out any military link to the guard’s death, and further security measures heightened tensions in the weeks following the attacks. Media reports have stoked fears that nuclear plants in Belgium might be potential targets for terrorists seeking nuclear materials.

Which… is not great news, although it’s wise to consume news media in the days and weeks following a terrorist attack with a healthy grain of salt. Besides which, there’s a much larger and longer-running discussion around Belgium’s nuclear power plants that poses serious logistical and political problems for a sizeable portion of Western Europe: really friggin’ old reactors.

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They no longer identify with the music played on the radio, they need sleeping pills at night and they’re starting to worry about osteoporosis. [x]

Both the Doel plant on the Dutch border and the Tihange plant near the German border have experienced maintenance and mechanical issues in the last five years. Both plants have reactors dating back to the mid-1970s. The Netherlands and especially Germany are calling for Belgium to mothball the oldest of the reactors in these plants – which were scheduled to be shut down in 2015 – due to fears they might malfunction enough to cause nuclear meltdowns, also known as the worst possible crisis your neighbours can have, narrowly beating out noisy marital disintegration and acquiring an anxious and overzealous Chihuahua.

Germany has made similar demands to France, which is closing its oldest nuclear power station, the 39-year-old Fessenheim, this year. The Energiewende, or energy transition, launched by Angela Merkel’s government in 2011 has seen plans put in place to close all of Germany’s nuclear power facilities by 2022. Largely spurred on by the disaster in Fukushima in March 2011, the Energiewende policies saw a reversal of the CDU’s plan to extend the lifespan of Germany’s nuclear reactors to 2050, and instead beat a hasty retreat to the timeline originally proposed by its left-wing predecessors in government.

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“After careful consideration of recent events, we have decided that nuclear fallout is scary as shit and we out. We ouuuttt.” [x]

It’s a policy that is not without its detractors, five years on. Nuclear power still provides about 18% of Germany’s electricity production at the moment. Finding a balance between the difficulties in creating new renewable energy infrastructure and trying to limit the need for increased reliance on fossil fuels is no small task. They’re getting there – almost a third of Germany’s energy requirements were met by renewable sources last year. But the nature of the European energy landscape means that there is a not insignificant amount of import and export between Germany and its neighbours, and Germany’s neighbours are still big into that sweet, sweet, nuclear buzz. While proponents of the Energiewende policy claim this doesn’t compromise Germany’s political position on nuclear energy, the fact remains that nuclear energy will still be passing through Germany’s grid and coffers as long as its neighbours are producing it, and that nuclear disaster – of the kind it fears will happen in Belgium – doesn’t respect national borders.

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Nuclear fallout doesn’t even need to show its passport any more! [x]

Is it alarmist to talk about an impending nuclear disaster in Belgium? Maybe not, when you consider that the Belgian government decided three weeks ago in late April to provide iodine pills to its entire population, in case of a nuclear accident. The pills are to prevent the build up of radioactive iodine in the thyroid gland, which is one of the most well recorded hazards of radiation exposure from nuclear accidents. The move doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the government’s decision not to shut down the reactors, but then again it’s worth noting that 60% of Belgium’s electricity comes from nuclear power, so it’s not really a decision they can make lightly.

So how worried should we be? Greenpeace certainly has grave concerns. But nuclear energy proponents point out that the dangers posed by increased fossil fuel usage are a certainty, compared with nuclear power, which only poses the possibility of a threat. There are even arguments that radiation exposure after a nuclear accident isn’t as dangerous as we’ve thought. The problem is that the argument around nuclear energy is deeply polarised, with compelling facts on both sides, but a disturbing lack of scientific certainty or consensus. It often comes down to balancing the benefits of a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel consumption with the difficulty of storing and disposing of nuclear waste – both extremely long-term issues with ramifications that will need to be dealt with many generations down the line (assuming we don’t annihilate ourselves in the meantime).

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If only there was a solution… [x]

Ultimately Belgium is left with the choice between taking drastic action to overhaul its energy infrastructure (either in the form of new reactors, or alternative forms of energy production), or crossing its fingers and hoping for the best. But does it have a responsibility to listen to its neighbours on this matter? Given that the EU is currently seeking to strengthen investment in nuclear energy throughout its member states it might be best served by planning construction of new reactors, despite its pledge to phase out reliance on nuclear power. Who knows, maybe we’ll reached the promised land of nuclear fusion, with its increased safety and efficiency, and less hazardous by-products compared to fission. Unfortunately that technology seems to be perpetually thirty years away from commercial production, and Belgium’s problems can’t wait that long. And if it chooses to continue down the path of fission energy, it’s fairly likely that Germany won’t be too keen to let it borrow a cup of sugar or water its houseplants in the near future.

CB

 

PS While researching I came across that old 1950s video on what to do in case of nuclear attack, so please enjoy this horrifying jaunt through history:

Intertwined Destinies: On Böhmermann, Brussels, and German-Turkish Relations

When I started researching this article two weeks ago, the current furore around German comedian-turned-international-scandal-item Jan Böhmermann was merely a blip in the post-April Fool’s day round up. It was with mingled bewilderment and frustration that I watched the news unfold in the following days – frustration not only at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s squashing of free expression both within his borders and internationally, but also because I was hoping to get ahead of the curve in English language news coverage of the incident. Once John Oliver’s got hold of a topic, though, you can be pretty sure everyone’s going to hear about it.

Yes, just about everybody is talking about the so-called “Schmähkritik Gedicht”, which more or less translates to “slander poem”. Böhmermann, who hosts the popular satirical comedy show Neo Magazin Royale, wrote the segment in support of his fellow entertainers at extra-3, whose own toe-tapping satirical song about Erdogan was already drawing ire from the Turkish president:

(Turn on subtitles for the English translation)

“Je suis extra-3!” declared Böhmermann, after carefully explaining (apparently to Erdogan himself) that the freedom of the press is a protected right in Germany under Article 5 of the Grundgesetz, or German Basic Law, and as such extra-3’s song constitutes legal, valid political criticism. “There are instances, however,” he continued, “in which – there’s art, there’s artistic freedom, that’s permitted, and on the other side, there’s – what’s it called? ‘Schmähkritik’.”

“When you defame people, when you insult someone,” supplied his colleague Ralf Kabelka, helpfully.

“Do you understand, Herr Erdogan? That can actually be prosecuted… Maybe it’s a bit complicated, perhaps we’ll quickly explain with a small example,” Böhmermann said, and proceeded to recite a rather grandiose verse in which the Turkish president was, among other things, accused of fucking goats, oppressing minorities, beating girls, and enjoying fellatio with a hundred sheep instead of sleeping (it is, we should note, not clear who was doing the fellating). “But these are things we’re not allowed to say, right?” interjected Böhmermann at several points.

Cue uproar, and – as Böhmermann himself predicted – legal repercussions.

This is a tricky situation for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Or rather, as Spiegel Online is declaring with delighted morbidity, it’s a harbinger of doom for her leadership (to be fair, declaring that Merkel is doomed is Spiegel Online’s absolute favourite hobby right now).

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They’re building up their Anguished Angela/Mournful Merkel picture gallery [x]

The main cause of tension is the fact that Merkel has been determinedly brokering a deal with the Turkish government that would see refugees arriving by boat in Greece returned to Turkey, in exchange for the same number of refugees being resettled in Europe through more official channels. The ‘one in, one out’ arrangement is already being carried out, with Syrian refugees arriving in Germany and Finland in early April. The plan has come under heavy criticism from human rights groups, with UNHCR declaring that it violates European and international law by returning asylum seekers to a third country (that is, neither the country they are fleeing nor the country in which they sought asylum). Merkel, however – along with other European leaders – is desperately hoping that this will abate the never-ending political nightmare that is European refugee policy.

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The political nightmare has nothing on the actual nightmare playing out right now [x]

In her efforts not to alienate such a key player in this crucial plan, Merkel has allowed for Böhmermann to be prosecuted under German law – albeit an archaic and little-used law forbidding insults against foreign heads of state, which the Chancellor has subsequently vowed to get rid of by 2018. A little too late for Jan, certainly. But this episode in German-Turkish relations is part of a much larger picture, and in fact is contributing to tipping a much larger set of scales than simply Erdogan v. Böhmermann.

I mentioned earlier that I’ve been researching this article for a couple of weeks. In late March, I visited my friend Betül Gülsen in Hannover, who wanted my opinion on something.

“What do you think about the reaction to the Brussels attacks?” she asked me. “I mean, compared to the reaction to the explosions in Turkey.”

“Well,” I answered her, “I’ve heard almost nothing about Turkey, and almost nothing but Brussels in the last week.”

Betül nodded. “I don’t think they’re going to treat every terrorist attack the same, but why couldn’t the government put the Turkish flag up on the Brandenburger Tor [Brandenburg Gate] after Ankara or Istanbul? Just doing that one thing, just to recognise that we are part of this country, and that those attacks have a real effect on a lot of Germans and people who live here. Why can’t they include us, if they can include Belgium?”

Why, indeed? There have been countless arguments written about how not all terrorist attacks are equal in the eyes of Western news media, even when two incidents happen within days of each other in two European capitals. This article can’t hope to contribute to that wider conversation right now – the fact of the matter is that the case of Germany’s response to the attacks in Turkey and the attacks in Belgium occur within a very specific context, which adds another, more urgent layer to that question: why didn’t Germany stand in solidarity with Turkey the way it did with Belgium?

Betül is Turkish German – born in Turkey, and raised in Germany, she is one of approximately 2.71 million people residing in Germany who have at least one Turkish parent. Turks are the largest immigrant group in the country, and have formed an integral part of German society and culture since the Gastarbeiter (or guest worker) programme of the 1960s and 70s resulted in a wave of immigration.

This instance, in which there was such a large influx of foreign workers – and more specifically, a large number of Muslims – invites comparison with Germany’s current struggles to integrate new arrivals in the country. The persistent racism with which the Turkish population has struggled for many years is already showing its larger, more threatening face to refugees in the form of such extreme right movements as PEGIDA.

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Although the only movement worth comparing to PEGIDA is a bowel movement [x]

The German government did issue a statement of solidarity with Turkey (and also Côte d’Ivoire) on March 14th. Merkel made a statement of condolence and solidarity for the families of ten victims, including eight Germans, of the bombing near Istanbul’s Sultanahmet in January of this year. But it doesn’t really compare to the explicit, deliberate and deeply felt reaction to the horrific terrorist attacks in Brussels.

“The frustration stems from the fact that not projecting the Turkish flag on the Brandenburger Tor seems symbolic for Turkish people living in Germany as: Try as hard as you can (or don’t try), you’ll never be a proper part of the German society,” Betül explained to me. “Like, you’re good enough to build up this country after World War II, but apparently not good enough to sympathise with you in terms of solidarity with your families.”

Clearly, there are political motivations behind the German government offering unconditional alliance and support to Belgium and not to Turkey. There are numerous complex relationships in play, not least the ever-looming question of Turkey’s accession to the EU, which many commentators (including German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble) have ruled as impossible, despite Turkey’s long and influential shared history with Europe.

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Erdogan’s personal politics are significant here, too. His government’s flagrant abuse of human rights would make any sane politician wary of aligning themselves too closely with the Turkish administration.

But surely there must be a middle ground here. Isn’t it possible for Germany’s government to separate its criticism of the Turkish state with its empathy for the Turkish people (who are, after all, in many cases also the German people, and also the primary victims of said human rights abuses)? Indeed, it’s in the government’s best interests to mitigate the ongoing marginalisation of Muslims and foreigners in Europe and in Germany specifically – after all, it’s increasingly clear that the primary cause of extremism is alienation, which is leading to severe rifts in societies such as France’s.

This is not at all to say that the Turkish population of Germany poses a terrorist risk. On the contrary – Germany’s extensive Turkish population presents the perfect opportunity for a Western European country to genuinely embrace cultural and religious diversity, in a clear and unambiguous manner. They’ve been part of Germany for over half a century, and are already well on the way to full inclusion in German identity and culture and the best possible outcome of Germany and Turkey’s already tightly intertwined futures. But Germany must be prepared to meet them in the middle.

This doesn’t mean sacrificing criticism of the Turkish government (and indeed, in response to the scandal, UK-based magazine The Spectator has set up a competition to insult Erdogan for a prize of £1,000, so there’s more incentive than ever). While Jan Böhmermann has received accusations of racism for his Schmähkritik, there is little doubt that his criticism was aimed squarely and exclusively at the Turkish President and not at the population in general. I really want to show you the clip (with the all-important context, although it’s all in German), but it’s being taken down at lightning speed all over the internet, so there’s no guarantee this link will still work even at the time of publishing this article:

 

As for Betül, she wrote a letter of support to Herr Böhmermann assuring him that not all Turks felt the same way about his poem (which received a mixed reaction in the Turkish press), although she expressed frustration that he’d made it so easy for Erdogan to come after him in the courts. Nevertheless, she’s promised to send him baklava.

 

CB

PS – if you want to see some of Böhmermann’s work in English, then this video followed directly after the Schmähkritik segment:

[Header image credit: FOCUS Online]