Who, if not us?

The Ethics Commission on the Energy Transition appointed by Chancellor Angela Merkel sees a nuclear phaseout within ten years as an opportunity for Germany. "We are unique in the world," commission chairman Klaus Topfer said Monday in Berlin.

"Who, if not we, is able to accomplish this community project?"In the words of Matthias Kleiner, the self-confidence of an industrial and high-tech nation resonated, but also the risk of the upcoming "extraordinary challenge": the phase-out of nuclear energy within ten years. The physicist, together with former German Environment Minister Klaus Topfer (CDU), presented the panel's recommendations to German Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) on Monday as chair of the "Secure Energy Supply" ethics commission. The core message: "For ethical reasons, nuclear power plants in Germany should only run until their output can be replaced by a lower-risk energy supply".

However, the question of the ethical justifiability of nuclear energy, on which all major industrial nations worldwide continue to rely, was no longer even up for debate. When the chancellor convened the commission, the basic decision had already been made. So it was only a question of an "energy turnaround with a sense of proportion". The report devotes five of its 48 pages to ethical justification. At the same time, he emphasizes at the outset that any decision to end the use of nuclear energy is based on a "value decision by society" that "takes precedence over technical and economic aspects".

This is linked to an ecological orientation of society. "From the Christian tradition and the culture of Europe results a special obligation of man towards nature," the text states. At the same time, emphasis is placed on responsibility toward future generations. The political change of heart is due to the nuclear disaster in Japan. "Fukushima has changed my attitude toward nuclear energy," Merkel recently confessed. Above all, the degree of helplessness of the high-tech country Japan after the catastrophe made her personally rethink her position.

Fukushima as a benchmark for "risk perception"
From this point of view, Fukushima is also considered by the Commission as a benchmark of "risk perception". While nuclear energy was long regarded as a controllable and almost unlimited source of energy, the report sees this as an outdated "utopia of the future" that can no longer be justified ethically today – "at least for Germany" – as it says in a qualifying statement.

So how to deal with the basic possibility of a major accident and the radioactive waste? The commission sees here a categorically rejecting and a relativizing weighing position opposite each other. For the representatives of a categorical rejection, the danger no longer allows for a weighing of goods. They mainly include anti-nuclear activists and environmental groups. Topfer named as further representatives the philosopher Robert Spaemann in addition, parts of the churches.

The relativizing risk assessment, on the other hand, ames that large-scale technology is not possible without risk, and seeks "the most rational and fairest possible assessments". With the phase-out of nuclear energy, the report now sees a "stoop of understanding" between the two positions, i.e. the settlement of a dispute that has contributed to the "poisoning of the social atmosphere".

The commission itself follows with the exit again rather a relativierenden risk consideration. To her she dedicates most of the report. It cites climate protection, security of supply, economic viability and financial viability, social aspects of cost distribution, competitiveness and research, as well as dependence on exports, as test criteria. At the same time, however, it makes it unmistakably clear that such a feat of strength can only be accomplished as a joint effort.

According to the commission's ideas, this is to be served by a "National Forum on Energy Transition. For the commission is convinced that the "coming difficult process" is only possible if it develops its own dynamics for society as a whole and is perceived as an opportunity.

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