Nuclear Energy in Germany

Ondrej Urban
March 15, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Fig. 1: Anti-nuclear demonstration in Munich, March 2011 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

One of the most notable events following the meltdown in the Fukushima nuclear power plant (NPP) on March 12, 2011, was the decision of the German government, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, from May 30 2011, to shut down all nuclear reactors in the country and completely abandon nuclear power by 2022. [1] This decision was met with both positive reactions from the public and negative from the nuclear industry, as well as some politicians, calling this move "knee-jerk politics." [2]

In this report, I will try to put this decision into the context of German nuclear history, list some arguments for and against the shutdown used in the discussion, and finally look at the progress that has been made in implementing this decision since 2011.

Note: Various aspects of this topic have been discussed in previous years of Physics 241, in reports by Xin Min Lee in 2015 and Alexander Liegl in 2014. [3,4]

Germany Before Fukushima

Before the Second World War, Germany has been one of the leaders in nuclear research. This period, as well as the war efforts, when German scientists were considering the possibilities of developing nuclear weapons, have been covered in a PH241 report by Andrew Wendorff. [5]

After the war, the nuclear development in Germany was halted by the sanctions imposed onto the country by the winning nations and the country was divided into the eastern (German Democratic Republic, GDR) and western (Federal Republic of Germany, FRG) parts. In 1955, both countries started independently developing their nuclear industries, assisted by their respective allies. [6] FRG decided to pursue nuclear research strictly for the production of energy and completely abandoned any nuclear weapon development. After the reunification in 1990, safety assessment of the formerly eastern nuclear facilities revealed deficiencies resulted in the decision of closing the existing facilities, as well as abandoning the construction of the unfinished ones.

The anti-nuclear movement has been an important part of the nuclear debate in Germany since the early 1970's when the concerns about nuclear safety started to appear among the general public. When the town of Wyhl was chosen as the site of a new NPP, it launched a public opposition largely neglected by the officials. [7] After the permission to build had been granted in February 1975, several hundred protesters occupied the proposed site, only to be dispersed by the police shortly afterwards. The subsequent re-occupation of the site by a crowd of 30,000 gradually forced the government to retract the building permission in a big victory for the anti-nuclear movement. Another notable violent protest took place in February 1981 in Brokdorf, near Hamburg, where 50,000 people demonstrated against the construction of a NPP at a nearby site. [8] The crowd clashed with the police, resulting in numerous injuries on both sides. The protest was ultimately unsuccessful and the Brokdorf plant started operation in October 1986.

The main law regulating the nuclear industry in Germany is the Atomic Energy Act (AEA), drafted on December 23 1959, that came into power on January 1 1960 and has been amended several times since. [9] The left-wing government under Chancellor Schroeder, elected in 1998, reached an agreement in 2000 with the electric companies, to gradually phase out the nuclear energy production. No new plants were to be built and a total volume of electricity was assigned to each of the existing NPPs to be produced before the plant went offline. This decision was reflected in the 2002 amendment to the AEA. The final pre-Fukushima amendment was added in 2010 (by the Merkel government), maintaining the ban on the construction of new NPPs, but extending the allowed electricity volumes, extending the lifetimes of the existing plants by 12 years on average.

Germany After Fukushima

Angela Merkel's cabinet famously reacted to Fukushima by immediately shutting down seven of the country's 17 NPPs. Following massive demonstrations where more than 200,000 people took part across Germany (see Fig.1), they retracted the decision of extending the lifetimes of the existing plants. [10] The decision was often, at least partially, ascribed to the upcoming state elections, in which Merkel tried to take an edge off the left-wing opposition. The previous energy transformation program, or Energiewende, has thus been brought back. [11] In addition to the nuclear phase out, the government reaffirmed the country's goals to cut the greenhouse gas emissions by 40% from the 1990 levels by 2020 and by 80% by 2050.

The total costs of decommisionning of all the nuclear facilities in Germany have been estimated to €50 billion. [12] This includes dismantling the for-profit power stations, paid for by their private owners, as well as experimental and prototype facilities, whose dismantling will be covered by the public funds. Additional costs are required for disposal of the nuclear waste. However, this is just a part of the total projected costs of the Energiewende. A total of 8300km of transmission lines will have to be built or upgraded to transport the energy from the offshore wind farms in the North Sea to the industrial south of the country. [11] The government also supports energy production from the renewables by offering to buy out excess energy from the producers. In this way, they would like 35% of electricity to be produced from the renewables by 2020.

An important part of Energiewende comes from the so-called prosumer model, which ties the public acceptance of the policy with a high level of micro-ownership. [13] Overall, more than 50% of the renewable-producing capacity is owned by individuals, while the big energy companies own less than 10% of the total. Apart from increasing the public awareness and acceptance of the policy, this model also forces the big companies to structure their business to accommodate this type of market - for instance, RWE provides assistance to the individuals in building their own power-generating facilities.

The opponents of the Energiewende argue with potentially rising prices of electricity, as well as an increased risk of blackouts caused by the unreliability of the renewable energy sources. They also warm about fluctuations of the wholesale electricity prices, the potential of which discourages the investments into more flexible sources, such as the natural gas. Lastly, concerns are also rising about the landscape changing, that would be caused by the excessive expansion of the electric grid.

Recent Progress in the Energiewende

Despite the scope and ambition of the energetic plans of Germany, there appears to be a steady progress in phasing out the nuclear. In June 2015, the NPP in Grafenrheinfeld has been decommisionned, the first plant to go since 2011, ahead of the planned date in December due to the low prices of raw power, that caused the plant to be unprofitable. [14] The energy production has been replaced by the renewables, such as wind or solar.

Overall, Germany managed to reduce the fraction of energy coming from nuclear from 23% to 16% between 2010 and 2014 and increase the fraction from renewables from 17% to 28% in the same period. [15] However, due to the low coal prices in Europe, coal energy has held still at 43%, potentially jeopardizing Germany's plan to reduce carbon emissions. The government's plan of imposing penalties on the coal plants producing the most pollution has been met by a resistance from the miners and their unions. [14]

Germany is also currently facing several lawsuits from the big electricity producers E.ON, GWE and EnBW, claiming a total of more than 24 billion Euros. [16] The companies have been accusing the government of taking rushed decision that have not been thought through. The government counters that the companies have failed to adjust their business models according to the nuclear phase-out that has been publicly discussed since the 2000s.


The ambitious plan of the German government to completely phase out nuclear energetics and to lower the country's dependence on fossil fuels in favour of the renewables seems to be progressing at about the expected pace, suggesting an optimistic outlook, as does the wide public acceptance of the plan. However, with the many challenges ahead, Energiewende is far from over at the moment.

© Ondrej Urban. 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] H. Pidd, "Germany to Shut All Nuclear Reactors, The Guardian, 30 May 11.

[2] J. Dempsey and J. Ewing, "Germany, in Reversal, Will Close Nuclear Plants by 2022," New York Times, 30 May 11.

[3] X. M. Lee, "Germany's Change of Mind," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2015.

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

[5] A. Wendorff, "German Nuclear Program Before and During World War II," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2014.

[6] M. Achilles, "Nuclear Power? No, Thank You!: Germany's Energy Revolution Post-Fukushima", in Environmental Sustainability in Transatlantic Perspective: A Multidisciplinary Approach, ed. by M. Achilles and D. Elzey, (Plagrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 104.

[7] W. C. Patterson, Nuclear Power (Penguin Books, 1983).

[8] J. Tagliabue, "West Germans Clash at Site of A-Plant,' New York Times, 1 Mar 81.

[9] "Act on the Peaceful Utilisation of Atomic Energy and the Protection Against Its Hazards (Atomic Energy Act)," German Federal Office of Radiation Safety [Bunderamt für Strahlenschutz], January 2016.

[10] S. Brown, "Anti-Nuclear Germans Protest on Eve of State Vote," Reuters, 26 Mar 11.

[11] "Energiewende," The Economist, 28 Jul 12.

[12] S. Stahl and E. Strub, "Decommissioning of Nuclear Facilities," Gesellschaft für Anlagen- und Reaktorsicherheit, GRS-S-52, May 2012.

[13] T. Smedley, "Goodbye Nuclear Power: Germany's Renewable Energy Revolution," The Guardian, 10 May 13.

[14] M. Eddy, "Nuclear Plant Closing Reflects Overhaul of German Energy Production, New York Times, 12 Jul 15.

[15] G. Reuter, "How Far along Is Germany's Nuclear Phase-Out?, Deutsche Welle, 29 Jun 15.

[16] C. Steiz and C. Copley, "Exit Now, Pay Later: Germany's Rushed Farewell to Nuclear Power, Reuters, 1 Nov 15.