Operation German atomic phaseout: Not satisfied nor pacified

Picture: Changing of the flags, at the Gronau uranium enrichment facility, July 4th 2011.

By Michael Wilk

Tens of thousands took the streets in Germany after the renunciation of the phony "red-green exit strategy" by the Christian Democrat/Liberal coalition government, and in the aftermath of Fukushima the number of people unwilling to accept the threats from atomic technology rose by dimensions. There is little doubt that the closedown of eight reactors and the u-turn of the cabinet on atomic policy were a reaction to the massive protests.

The "surgery"...

The "phaseout declaration" of the federal government, propped up by the opposion Social Democrats and rubberstamped with the ecological approval of the opposition Greens, was sold to the public as a radical step concerning atomic power generation - as an open-heart operation on German energy policy, in which even powerful utility corporations would have to accept massive cuts. The surgery was successful for the present, according to the surgeons: Some of the most sclerotic and susceptible parts of the atomic circulation were removed, bypasses increased the lifetimes of the remaining structure, systemically juvenescent components were implanted, and "Patient Powergrid" would be released back to capitalist life in a "bio-gas and palm-oil improved condition". Part of that package was the most important provision of all - the anaesthesia of the disturbed public.

If hundreds of thousands had taken the streets after Fukushima, then hundreds of thousands remained at home after the "phaseout declaration" of the politicians...

Without doubt the switch-off of eight German reactors is a partial success. It must be assumed that without the public pressure nothing would have happened, like in France. It is not without a reason that from abroad the deactivation of the German reactors is being perceived either as a significant irritation or as an incitation, depending on the position taken. Even within the country some big corporations are beginning to disentangle themselves from the atomic business since it became disreputed by Fukushima. But that's as far as the good news goes.

The results of the fake phaseout are to be considered of highly ambivalent effect. Compared to the overall size of the German (let alone the international) share in potential threats from atomic facilities, the closedown of eight old and malfunctioning reactors is a risk-reducing step, but in the context of the remaining capacities of operational facilities and the unresolved problem of the "permanent" storage of the waste it is anything but a sufficient plan. Nine reactors in continued operation, the six most powerful thereof (8,600 MW) until 2021, not only present a continued highly radioactive risk potential, but with the perspective of three federal election cycles in that period of time also the possibility of another political u-turn. Besides the fact that even closed reactors do remain dangerous and sensitive facilities for decades, huge quantities of radioactive waste will accumulate for at least another 11 years. The geologically out of the question salt deposit at Gorleben nonetheless still remains a target for the exploration of "permanent" atomic waste storage. Of course it also is intended to continue the operation of the uranium enrichment facility in Gronau, such as the projected expansion of atomic research and exports, including the political-economical backing with so-called "Hermes" export credit guarantees issued by the government (such as for the Angra III reactor in Brazil).

The temporary reduction of cash flows coming with the closedown of the eight reactors was accepted with little resistance by the energy corporations (except for the threat of massive job cuts by E.ON), since their ominous hegemony over
energy generation was not significantly impaired. Just the opposite, increased subsidies for offshore wind farms are strengthening the position of the Gang of Four (E.ON, RWE, EnBW, Vattenfall) against decentralised and local power generation. The campaign for renewable energy linked to the phaseout legislation provides them with advantages over their competitors not only enery-policy-wise, but also macroeconomically and structurally. The declared ambition of all political decision makers to integrate ecological assumptions and thus spice up the economic system without changing the old economic power structure was strengthened in an exemplary way.

The fake phaseout turned out to be not only irresponsible and insufficient with regard to the continued operation of atomic facilities, but also an instrument of modernisation and acceleration of a deliberate greenwashing of capitalist energy policy. For the time being, a parliamentary majority has secured its - now ecologically generated - future profit margins, keeps dirty old conventional power stations profitable for decades, and is prolonging the atomic option. The decisions of the government were made with active support of the opposition Social democrats, and the rubberstamping of the process by the opposition Greens is a significant contribution to pretending to a wider public that the conflict over atomic power was now "resolved".

The major intention, to pacify the broad and (at least partially) radicalising protest, was achieved for the time being. The regime-saving strategy towards the widening, manifold and active movement followed a well-proven and time-tested pattern: Besides the criminalisation of the active and militant component of the anti-atomic movement that continued in the background of the post-Fukushima environment, a concept of pacification took effect which is characterised with media-transported and media-generated displays of concern of the political caste, an ensuing pompous policy u-turn, and finally partial closedowns and concessions. The aim of a restabilisation of a head of state partially weakened by a loss of trust was achieved for the price of a moratorium and the known closedowns. At the same time, "renewable energy" was sold to the public nearly as a reason of state. The implementation of this confidence-building effort was connected to a process that had been successfully started and pushed through for decades, which integrated an "alternative" ecological movement somehow critical of society and turned it into an essential component of "morally improved ecological" capitalist operation.

Once again the capitalist system shows itself to be ductile and flexible: The reintegration and revaluation of differing and politically opposing factions is well-tried and always comes with fewer conflicts than the prosecution and oppression of the stubborn by police. This does not mean that these elements were not deployed - Gorleben is imminent.

Who has got enough is satisfied... who has got enough is pacified...

The closedown of eight reactors is positive, even though a closed reactor is far from harmless; it is better than an operational one. It´s as simple and good as that. However this crude view is too narrow. It would be a self-deception to assume that protests could just continue as if nothing had happened. From an emancipatory perspective, the anti-atomic movement was thrown back by the phaseout campaign. More precisely: It allowed itself to be thrown back.

As is known any rule or regime always involves two sides - the one exerting it, and the one tolerating it. The public, disturbed and irritated in its inertness by Fukushima, or at least a small fraction of it, was ready to take to the streets and support those who already had mobilised against the radically pro-atomic policy of the government. Hundreds of thousands became active. Various forms of action, individual actions and mass protests for months dominated the streets as well as the media.

However the "phaseout decision in national consensus" still took effect immediately. Despite the damaged and continuously radioactive Fukushima reactors, after the announcement of the phaseout the media representation of events established the illusion of a "national solution in perfect satisfaction". Ignorant of the continued operation of German and other atomic facilities worldwide, the daily contamination from uranium mining, the unresolved storage issue and the military interlocking, pacification took effect.

In short time, the number of participants shrank. Already on May 28th many fewer people were participating in nationwide demonstrations, "Green" flags disappeared suddenly, if not entirely, and soon they could hardly be spotted anywhere. The blockade at the Brokdorf reactor was implemented somehow rough-and-ready, and the Neckarwestheim II blockade was canceled.

The anti-atomic movement has significantly lost momentum. Its ability to draw participants in future campaigns in the public perception very likely will be compared to the mass mobilisations in the immediate aftermath of Fukushima.

Ecological issues, even such substantially life-threatening ones as atomic energy, for the majority of the population are socially isolated phenomena that do not necessarily induce doubts in the rightness of the entire system. In the best case - from the perspective of emancipation - there will be fissures in a citizen-state-relationship otherwise perceived as largely intact. The state is often imagined as a mostly positive supply system and provider of security and order, even though "security" in an atomic context only means secure profits and "order" in reference to radioactive waste is little more than a sick joke.

Media disinformation, the all too willing swallowing of political sedatives and the significant pressure to return to a normality of undisturbed consumerism are known mechanisms of the regulation of society. The knee-jerk conservatism in the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens (and ourselves) is a decisive (anti)social element and a significant chock for any social movement.

Another highly effective factor in the disposal of politically disagreeably currents is the relationship between social movements and political parties. Once again the Greens delivered a brilliant performance against the anti-atomic movement in their starring role of "disruption and reabsorption". Though since the lame exit compromise of the red-green government in 2001 even the most naive and credulous anti-atomic activist should be aware how unscrupulous Green career politicians are in their cooperation with atomic corporations and their lobbyists, the party was able to present itself to outside observers with an aura of pure opposition to atomic power. Having come from the extraparliamentary ecological movement, the history of the Greens is not only the prototype of parliamentary political opportunism. They also serve as an important filter and watergate for the entire system in respect to social movements. In the process of participation in power, exploitable approaches of systemic criticism are picked up and integrated. Other aspects which permanently question hierarchies or reach "too far" towards emancipation are being discriminated against and separated. Hence in case of doubt the Greens can "easily foreswear this" remainder of the movement. Accordingly clear Claudia Roth answered the question on the relationship to the critical ingredient of the anti-atomic movement in the aftermath of the approval of the "phaseout law".

Even though for activists from the social movements the top green politicians are little more than a political reason to puke, being pushed by the media they seem to be able to play a role as a sort of Praetorian Guard of the ecological idea, which in the process of the parliamentary grinding of extraparliamentary pressure does distort, castrate and invert intentions. Just like in the push for and approval of German external military deployments, by the Greens, who were perceived as the parliamentary wing of the peace movement.

Only the pressure of the street can change the societal conditions...

However the collaboration of the Greens in the moment of parliamentary approval only is a detail of the dilemma. Far from being able to really challenge the regime even in single points, for the time being every social movement depends on its capacity to inspire, compel, or - where necessary - force political decision makers. This raises the question as to the purpose of the anti-atomic movement. At which extent does an irregular movement prescribe political goals? Is it possible to at least roughly coordinate strategies?

We remember: After the "phaseout declaration" the somewhat bitter dispute over the necessity of the slogan "Immediate closedown of all atomic facilities" has gained new meaning. Far from being just a buzzword, it represents the nucleus of our agenda with all due simplicity and clarity.

All those surprised by the "energy corporation adapted" results of the parliamentary vote should ask themselves whether their wishy-washy demand for "disengagement from the nuclear program" in its ambiguity was abetting just that outcome. Betting on the wingspan of a coalition can be a meaningful enterprise - but not for the price of giving up clarity of intention. The current outcome of the social struggle is being interpreted differently, according to the stance of the observer. Those who believe it was enough to deactivate the most dangerous reactors can be satisfied once they ignore reality. Others, who believe they could not dump coalition partners in political parties, unions etc. must accept the lesson that insufficient distinction and ambiguity of intention are a prerequisite for being played as a political football by partisan power interests.

Hence it was absolutely right to deny the stage to political parties, not to hand out control over the campaigns, and if possible somehow to put our demands to the media clear enough to at least complicate the possibility of political distortion and instrumentalisation. It was also important on a tactical level to transcend the norms of state-defined legality. The implementation of proud and humane thinking based on individual responsibility expresses itself not just by intent but also in action.

The anti-atomic movement is irregular and pluralistic in the best sense of the word.

With all differences, the demand for the "Final, immediate closedown of all atomic facilities" should be and remain our common ground. Essential shared propositions also can be found in the efforts for mutual tolerance of different approaches,as far as they are not clearly counterproductive.

The debate over our purpose will continue. Is it "only" the quickest possible termination of a highly dangerous technology, or also the questioning of societal power structures? Is there any satisfaction to have moved a little bit on the path towards environmental sustainability? Or are we in for more? Is it really better if German tanks at the Hindukush or elsewhere use agrofuels to defend the interests of power and capital? Is it irrelevant whether the mercury lamp is produced by wage slaves in the Far East? Probably not. It is not about the ecological pacification of a merely eurocentrist consumerism. It is about the right of access, about the conditions of production and about anti-human rule. In this sense it is not only about ecological cosmetics but about political ecology as the best instrument of human emancipation.

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Dr. Michael Wilk, Wiesbaden Environmental Protection Working Group

This speech was held at the recent Autumn Conference of the Anti-atomic Initiatives in Göttingen, Germany, September 30th 2011.

Transcript first published in German at http://www.aku-wiesbaden.de/

Michael Wilk is a medic, anarchist writer and environmental activist. https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/de/wiki/Michael_Wilk

Translated using activist community resources. Feel free to proliferate into further languages, notification through the working group website appreciated.