By Andy Eckardt, NBC News Producer
MAINZ, Germany – In a major victory for the anti-nuclear movement, Germany announced Monday that it will phase-out nuclear power over the next 11 years. The plan is for the country’s 17 atomic power plants to be shut down by 2022.
Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision was made in response to public outcry over Japan’s Fukushima disaster, which reinvigorated the country’s somewhat dormant anti-nuclear movement and gave Germany’s environmentalist ‘Green’ party a boost.
But Germany’s alternative energy movement is nothing new. Just ask the Sladeks.
After the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, when people in central Europe were increasingly worried about toxic fallout, Ursula Sladek and her husband Michael decided it was time to act.
“Radioactive residues from Chernobyl were found on the playgrounds and farmland of our community. We were not certain anymore, if the milk, the vegetables and other farm products were safe to eat for our children,” Michael Sladek told NBC News.
The Sladeks have five children and live in Schönau, a small town in Germany’s picturesque Black Forrest region.
They knew they had to look at the broader picture and started questioning the use of nuclear energy. Chernobyl became a wake-up call for them and, eventually, for their entire community.
At first, the Sladeks took a very “domestic” approach and searched for ways to preserve energy at home, while gradually looking into access to green energy resources and “green models” in the region.
“We were naïve to believe that after Chernobyl politicians would wake up and put an end to nuclear energy. But, when we saw that nothing was happening, we knew we had to roll up our sleeves and do something ourselves,” Ursula Sladek said in an interview with German broadcaster ZDF.
Pete Souza / The White House
President Barack Obama meets with Goldman Environmental Prize winners in the Oval Office, April 13, 2011. Ursula Sladek is in the center on crutches.
“While we were campaigning for local support and running competitions to generate environmental awareness among the residents of Schönau, we soon realized that we had to take the fight off the streets and to take new projects into our own hands,” Michael Sladek added.
The result: In a 1996 town referendum – after 10 years of intensive research, protests and battles with local authorities – the residents of Schönau voted to take over the local power grid, supplied by renewable energy only.
Today, Ursula Sladek, runs EWS, a local utility company which is collectively owned by 1,000 citizens and which provides more than 400 million kilowatt hours of power to more than 100,000 households and businesses across Germany.
Needless to say that Ursula, a former primary school teacher, and Michael, a doctor, have become environmental heroes in their region, and beyond.
In April, Ursula Sladek was awarded the 2011 Goldman Environmental Prize for Excellence in Protecting the Environment. The prize, awarded by a San Francisco-based organization, recognizes six grassroots environmentalists across the globe annually and awards them $150,000 “to pursue their vision of a renewed and protected environment.”
For Ursula, the highlight of her recognition in the United States was an invitation to the Oval Office to meet with President Barack Obama. She presented him with the first English copy of her book, “100 good reasons against nuclear power.”
“Sladek has addressed climate change and energy security from the grassroots level, illustrating how social entrepreneurship and environmental stewardship can come together to tackle two of the world’s most urgent challenges,” the official Goldman Environmental Prize citation reads.
“Several American businessmen approached me during our visit to the award ceremony in San Francisco, and while they all admired our plight, their first question always was: ‘Can you make profit with this?’” Michael Sladek said
“And my answer always was: ‘Yes, we can,’” he said.
More than just green
Since its beginning, the company has been profitable, according to Michael Sladek, and grown annually, with total sales reaching approximately $95 million in 2009.
From the overall profit, company shareholders receive dividends; also, some of the money is reinvested in new projects or is used to support other local communities who want to run green energy companies that are independent from the large leading utility firms.
“We truly believe in the success and the future of decentralized renewable power facilities,” Michael Sladek said.
Experts, including the Sladeks, say that German politicians will now need to find the perfect mix of off- and on-shore windparks, solar farms, hydropower plants and other sustainable energy sources in order to meet its ambitious goal of closing all nuclear plants by 2022.
“Next week, we will have a delegation of officials and regular citizens from Japan visiting. They want to pick up some ideas for the future,” said Michael Sladek.