Germany's Change of Mind

Xin Min Lee
March 14, 2015

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2015


Fig. 1: Anti-nuclear demonstrations in Bonn, Germany, 1979 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Since the launch of Germany's first commercial nuclear power plant (NPP) in 1969, it has been four controversial decades of nuclear energy debate for Germany. The formation of the Ministry of Atomic Affairs in 1956 and the enactment of the Atomic Energy Act (AEA) in 1960 provided a strong base for the unhindered development of the nuclear industry for nearly 20 years. [1] Rise of anti-nuclear sentiments, heightened by the Chernobyl Disaster in 1986, and a change of focus to renewable energy then caused Germany to move away from nuclear power. In 2000, the German government declared a nuclear phase-out by 2022, but the plan was subsequently postponed. Up till 2011, Germany's 82 million inhabitants obtained over 140 TWh, or 22.4% of their electricity from 17 domestic nuclear reactors. [2] In a turn of events following the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster in March 2011, the phase-out was reintroduced, and 8 NPPs were shut down immediately and the remaining 9 will be shut down by 2022. [3]

Rise of the Anti-Nuclear Movement

Anti-nuclear sentiments in Germany began as early as the 1970s. Many citizen groups protesting against the plans for a major increase in nuclear power production came together to join the Bundesverband Bürgerinitiativen Umweltschutz (Federal Association of Citizens' Initiatives for Environmental Protection) (BBU). By 1978, the BBU had about a thousand organizational members and 1.5 million members, allowing it to wield considerable political weight. [4]

Additionally, the anti-nuclear movement coalesced with other movements (e.g. women's and peace movements) to form a Green Party which became known as die Grünen (the Greens). The Greens entered the federal parliament in 1983 with 27 seats and subsequently became members of a coalition government with the Social Democratic Party (SDP). [4] The anti-nuclear movement in Germany was thus able to become a major policy player because of its effective networking strategies and its decision to enter national party politics. [2]

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion in the Soviet Union on April 26, 1986 was a turning point for Germany's nuclear politics. The crisis pushed SDP, the country's second largest party, to support phasing out nuclear power, thus strengthening the anti-nuclear coalition and altering the power balance between the pro- and anti-nuclear. [4] The strong coalition played on the heightened anti-nuclear sentiments created by the crisis to call for a revision of Germany's energy strategies.

The First Phase-Out Plan

In 2000, after long drawn-out negotiations with the nuclear industry, the ruling SDP-Green Party coalition ("Red-Green coalition") government established a timeline for the eventual phasing out of nuclear power. The agreement allowed the industry to continue operating all 19 NPPs for an additional 2632 billion kWh, which averaged out to a shutdown by the early 2020s. The two least economically efficient reactors, in Stade and Obrigheim, were shut down in 2003 and 2005. [1]

Reversal of the Phase-Out

Fig. 2:Street protest against the postponement of the nuclear phase-out in Berlin, Germany, 2010. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The tight 2005 parliamentary elections resulted in a "grand coalition" between the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats/Christian Social Union. The newly elected Chancellor Angela Merkel, a Christian Democrat and trained physicist, believed in nuclear power as a safe, clean alternative to fossil fuels. [5] With the change in ruling coalition after the federal election of 2009, the new Christian Democrats/Christian Social Union-Free Democratic Party coalition pushed through an amendment to the AEA, which sought to postpone the nuclear phase-out plans of the Red-Green coalition. [6] Under the new policy, the phase-out dates for the 17 NPPs were pushed back an additional twelve years on average. [4] During the discussions leading up to the amendment and after, wide spread anti-nuclear protests were held across Germany. [4]

Return to Nuclear Phase-Out

The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster on 11 March 2011 proved to be another turning point for Germany's nuclear politics. [7] Antinuclear activists once again used the crisis to rally the public opinion against the ruling coalition's decision to postpone the nuclear phase-out. [4] On 14 March 14, just 3 days after the Fukushima Disaster, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced a three-month moratorium on nuclear power in an effort to demonstrate an understanding of the situation and sympathy for voters concerned by nuclear energy. [1] The seven oldest and the Krümmel NPPs, which accounted for 8.8 GW in capacity, were immediately shut, and the remaining nine NPPs (12.7 GW in total) are scheduled to be shut down by 2022. [3]


Germany's changing decision for or against nuclear energy has been closely tied to the changing political power, which in turn is affected by catalyst events that can incite public sentiments and shift the power balance. Even so, Germany is unique in its short term radical change and it would be interesting to watch how this energy transition will unfold.

© Xin Min Lee. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] D. Jahn and S. Korolczuk, "German Exceptionalism: the End of Nuclear Energy in Germany!," Environ. Polit. 21, 159 (2012).

[2] S. E. Wiliarty, "Nuclear Power in Germany and France," Polity 45, 281 (2013).

[3] K. Bruninx et al. "Impact of the German Nuclear Phase-Out on Europe's Electricity Generation - A Comprehensive Study," Energy Policy 60, 251 (2013).

[4] M. A. Schreurs, "Orchestrating a Low-Carbon Energy Revolution Without Nuclear: Germany's Response to the Fukushima Nuclear Crisis," Theoretical Inquiries in Law 14, 83 (2013).

[5] A. Arnold, "The Quest for Sustainable Energy: Germany's Nuclear Scrutiny vs. 'All of the Above'," Sustainable Development Law and Policy 15, 26 (2015).

[6] L. Ackland, "Can Germany Survive Without Nuclear Power?" B. Atom. Sci. 65, 41 (2009).

[7] A. Liegl, "Fukushima's German Repercussions," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2014.