We often get stuck in our ways, and only after receiving a whack to the head do we finally realize it's time for change. This is precisely what happened to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the leader of the politically conservative Christian Democratic Union, and long-time proponent of nuclear energy. It seems the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan has caused her to question her scientific understanding of the risks associated with nuclear power.
Only last year, Merkel wanted to extend the operating life of Germany's nuclear reactors by approximately 12 years. After the Fukushima disaster, she announced to everyone's surprise that her government will instead accelerate the phasing out of German reactors by 2022 at the latest. And she didn't stop there. She also vowed to slash the use of coal, speed up approvals for renewable energy investments, and cut CO2 emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.
Like many other government leaders, Merkel was convinced that nuclear power was safe and clean. But unlike many politicians, she is a trained physicist and received a doctorate for her work in quantum chemistry. That's what makes Merkel's about-face on nuclear so extraordinary; she has the scientific credentials and certainty to support her views. But, the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan was a game-changer. And Merkel, before anyone else, now understands the urgency of ending the use of nuclear and coal energy to instead embrace an age of renewable energy.
Fortunately, Merkel isn't alone in bringing about this change. Recently, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced he will forgo plans to get half of the country's future energy needs from nuclear power and instead place a greater reliance on renewable energy sources. This change of heart is not only due to the environmental and social costs of the disaster, but also the mounting economic costs. The Japanese government could end up paying out approximately $200 billion in order to cover the costs associated with nationalizing the nuclear company and compensation claims. Kan declared that "there's a need to start from a clean slate in discussing the basic energy plan." In disaster there is opportunity. We hope that Prime Minister Kan's words of wisdom will serve as a hard lesson to all governments, especially Canada's, where we have yet to put forward a sustainable, long-term plan for energy and climate change.