Debate: Against Monbiot – against nuclear love

24 March 2011 – Presseurop ()

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Presseurop published an endorsement of nuclear power by Guardian columnist and environmentalist author George Monbiot. In a direct rebuttal, German author and physicist Ralf Bönt denounces what he considers the cynicism of nuclear energy's proponents.

We have a dilemma here. While Japan is fighting to keep the disaster from escalating, the public debate over nuclear power confines itself to broad generalisations. Yet to simplify matters draws down accusations of callousness.

Think of the recklessness of Spiegel’s “Fukushima is everywhere”, and the anti-nuclear theatrics that took place during the spontaneous protest at the Brandenburg Gate, when actual images coming in from Japan largely sufficed. Think of debates with a lurid turn between concerned citizens and civil authorities about the local radiation exposure in Germany, many thousands of kilometres from Fukushima, that followed hard and fast.

This provoked Klaus Hartung in the Tagesspiegel to such an extent that he diagnosed a certain Angstlust amidst the outrage – a flirting with disaster for thrills. Psychoanalysts call this an “obsession with imagined experiences of loss”, which is then rewarded with a reassuring leap back to safe territory. Angela Merkel’s reaction, to shut down nuclear power plants in Germany immediately, was mocked at home and abroad as just plain daft.

Reducing the doomsayers to silence

This indignation with indignation, seeing as we're talking about, is itself insensitive. Insensitive because it diverts attention from the longlasting threat to Tokyo. Worse still, it betrays itself as a malicious attack on those opposed to nuclear power because it does not dish out at the same time criticism of those in favour of this dangerous technology.

The two German terms Angst and Lust are familiar ones in Anglo-Saxon; the concept Angstlust was also developed by the British psychoanalyst Michael Balint. In English, in turn, these last few years, the beautiful phrase “flipping the tortilla” has entered the language. It refers to the technique of flipping an argument on its head so quickly that the opponent fails to notice the sizzle. Suddenly, he’s holding the losing, burning, side of it. Most tortilla flippers don’t even realise they’re doing this. It’s a flip of the tortilla indeed when opponents of nuclear power, of all people, are accused of insensitivity to individual human fates and of delighting in the very Apocalypse they are warning against.

To get rid of the reason for your discomfort as quickly as possible, the first thing to do is reduce the doomsayers to silence. After all, they have been repeating themselves for decades now, with a note of desperation in their voices – in a vicious circle. Honestly, who would want to be anti nuclear power? Only someone who likes getting on our nerves. Such a person, most of the time, is against nuclear fusion and also likes loudly to mourn dead birds beneath wind turbines. Compared to this, the comfortable stance of not being against nuclear power looks laid-back and even sexy.

The summit in the art of self-deception has now been scaled by the British journalist George Monbiot, who wrote a rather predictable text for the Guardian in London under the title: “Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power”. His reasoning is simple: “A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.”

A longing for Apocalypse

How cynical. Monbiot wrote this while fire-fighters were risking their health and possibly their lives to protect Tokyo. He wrote this while the nuclear plant was radiating, the levels climbing around it, and still no prospect of an end to the leaks. He wrote this while the people of Fukushima looked on from emergency shelters as their livelihoods were destroyed, possibly for generations, and while tap water in Tokyo was forbidden to babies. Meanwhile, the plutonium threat in reactor number three is still not under control.

Yes, I hope the reactor can indeed withstand many more thousands of tons of sea water, if this proves necessary, even though it will flow back into the sea contaminated. Because we still do not know how much worse it’s really going to get. Radioactivity – and this is no beautiful thing – is an insidious killer. That’s why the Japanese interviewed in the street by television crews are also voicing their fears – oh, my apologies: their concerns. By the way, it makes you sick first.

And when I say this, I am not suffering from my anxiety, my Angstlust. On the contrary, I’ve been wondering for decades just what inspires appeasers to blow their horn while mounting the gangway to Noah’s Ark. Is it a longing for Apocalypse, a wonderful yearning for the abyss now that one has been plucked to safety yet again?

Yes, Germany is a country with advantages and disadvantages, and Angela Merkel's motives [shutting down Germany’s reactors] are transparent. But the next accident will be completely different. So it’s a good thing that even a few nuclear power plants have been unplugged. We can only hope they will be well looked after while cooling down. Because that takes a long time.

Translated from the German by Anton Baer

In collaboration with the Guardian, this article was also published in Comment is Free – Europe

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