The Evolution of Nuclear Energy in Japan and Germany

Justin Sao
February 14, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: The Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant, a 3-unit BWR site typical of Japan's nuclear plants (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Faced with the risks of oil embargoes and price volatility in the 1970s, industrial countries like Germany and Japan adapted to this problem of energy insecurity through major developments in nuclear power. However, by the 1990s, Germany and Japan began to differ on their implementation of low-carbon energy production technology, the former focusing on solar and wind power and the latter on nuclear energy.

Germany and Japan, both with "advanced market economies, lack of domestic oil and gas reserves, and a similar history of post-war reconstruction," eventually had different energy transitions during the 1990s, when Germany became a leader in renewable energy and transitioned out of nuclear energy, whereas Japan became a leader in nuclear power. [1] This report will address the evolution of energy policies in Germany and Japan, and how these policies were fundamentally impacted by their differences in available domestic energy resources (i.e. coal) for electricity demand, as well as their nuclear power regimes and the proliferation (or absence) of wind power.

Nuclear Energy in Germany and Japan During the 1960s-1980s

The first commercial nuclear power reactor in Germany and Japan can be traced to the 1960s, and nuclear energy was further hastened by both countries' desire to reduce their dependence on oil imports during the 1970s. Both countries had the "institutional capacity" for the early adoption of nuclear power, and the construction of nuclear power plants would enhance the security of domestic energy resources in Germany and Japan. [2]

The rapid growth in electricity demand preceded the rise of national nuclear energy programs in both these wealthy and politically stable countries. [3] To supply the energy needed, Germany, the third largest coal producer during this time, generated 75-90% of its electricity with domestic resources compared to 20-45% in Japan. [1] Still, both countries pursued a similar energy policy of "competitive accelerated adjustment" in which they responded to oil shocks through expansion of nuclear power. [4]

However, the introduction of nuclear energy had more of an impact on a less self-sufficient Japan than on Germany due to the lack of domestic energy resources in Japan. Nonetheless, both countries experienced a rapid expansion of nuclear energy from "a niche in the 1960s to a full-fledged regime in the 1970s." [1] The nuclear regimes in Germany and Japan remained strong until the 2000s.

Approaching Self-Sufficiency

From 1980-2010, Japan experienced a faster growth of electricity demand compared to Germany's electricity demand. Japan, unlike Germany, lacked domestic coal reserves and had an isolated electric grid, and utilized almost 80% more electricity than Germany, resulting in the fast development of nuclear power and construction of new power plants in Japan (Fig. 1). [1,5,6] In the 1990s, prior to the Fukushima accident, nuclear energy made up 27% of Japan's energy sector, with original plans to expand to 50% by 2030, while nuclear energy contributed to 29% of Germany's electricity supply. [1,7]

By the 1990s, Germany began to phase out of nuclear energy. During this time, Germany adopted wind power from Denmark. [8] And by the mid-2000s, Germany provided high feed-in tariffs to promote increased rates of installations and manufacturing of solar panels, comparable to Japan. [1] While Japan and Germany remain leaders in solar energy, Germany continued to commission new wind farms (Fig. 2) and overtook Japan in wind energy's share of total domestic supply - with wind making up short of 6% of the share in domestic electricity production in Germany, while only making up 0.4% in Japan in 2010. [9-11] Japan, which faced geographical/technical and political challenges in support of wind energy, had little choice but to expand its nuclear energy as the country's electricity demand matched the demand of other developed countries. [1]

Fig. 2: Wind farm in Neuenkirchen, Germany (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Still, by the 21st century, both countries aimed to reduce their dependency on high-carbon energy and instead looked to maintain the role of nuclear plants through the Energiekonzept in Germany and the 2010 Basic Energy Plan (BEP) in Japan. Energiekonzept hoped to "reduce the use of coal by 2.7 times and increase non-hydro renewables by 2.4 times" and the 2010 BEP "proposed to reduce the use of fossils by 2.5 times and almost triple non-hydro renewables." [1] Before the Fukushima accident, amendments to Germany's Atomic Energy Act - the main law regulating the country's nuclear industry - banned the construction of new nuclear power plants, but extended the lifetime of existing plants, maintaining the role of nuclear energy in Germany. [12]

Response Post-Fukushima

Germany and Japan had similar anti-nuclear sentiments pre- and post-Fukushima. While tensions between coal and nuclear power in Germany continued through the late 2000s, the Fukushima accident caused the German government to return to their nuclear energy phase-out timeline. After the accident, the country shut down seven of its 17 nuclear power plants. [12] In addition, the country's energy transformation program, Energiewende, was re-implemented to support Germany's phasing out of nuclear energy. Germany lowered the fraction of energy coming from nuclear from 9.8% to 6.5% between 2010 and 2015 and increased the share of energy production from renewables from 6% to 12.5% during this time. [10] However, the low prices of coal in Europe and the unreliability of wind power (Energiewende forces big companies to structure their business in order to accommodate this market) threaten Germany's plan to reduce carbon emissions. [12]

In contrast, Japan's nuclear sector did not face significant political competition from coal or renewable interests. Although Japan had shut down all fifty of its remaining nuclear power plants, Japan continued its fuel cycle program and had restarted three of the country's nuclear power plants as of January 2016. [7] Despite the events at Fukushima, Japan still plans for nuclear power to contribute 20-22% of electricity by 2030. [13]


Although Germany and Japan responded similarly to the oil shocks in the 1970s through their expansion of nuclear power, both countries soon experienced a divergence in their low-carbon electricity sources in the 1990s. The growth of electricity demand and energy insecurity in Japan encouraged the country's expansion of nuclear energy, whereas competition between domestic coal and renewable regimes in Germany led to the phase-out of nuclear power. Further examination of policy (i.e. political incentives and possible foreign interferences funding anti-nuclear activity in Germany) comparison leading to the diverging energy transitions of Japan and Germany can further shine light on the transformation of nuclear energy's roles in both countries.

© Justin Sao. 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] A. Cherp et al., "Comparing Electricity Transitions: A Historical Analysis of Nuclear, Wind and Solar Power in Germany and Japan," Energy Policy 101, 612 (2017).

[2] D. Poneman, Nuclear Power in the Developing World (Unwin Hyman, 1982).

[3] J. Jewell, "Ready for Nuclear Energy?: An Assessment of Capacities and Motivations For Launching New National Nuclear Power Programs," Energy Policy 39, 1041 (2011).

[4] G. J. Inkenberry, "The Irony of State Strength: Comparative Responses to the Oil Shocks in the 1970s," Int. Organ. 40, 105 (1986).

[5] T. Feldhoff, "Post-Fukushima Energy Paths: Japan and Germany Compared," B. Atom. Sci. 70, 87 (2014).

[6] T. Price, Political Electricity: What Future For Nuclear Energy? (Oxford University Press, 1990).

[7] E. Chang, "The Road to Recovery: Japan after Fukushima," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2016.

[8] M. Heymann, "Signs of Hubris: The Shaping of Wind Technology Styles in Germany, Denmark, and the United States, 1940-1990," Technol. Cult. 439, 641 (1998).

[9] "International Energy Outlook 2016," U.S. Energy Information Administration, DOE/EIA-0484(2016), May 2016.

[10] "BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2016", British Petroleum, June 2016.

[11] "Renewable Energy Sources in Figures," German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, September 2016.

[12] O. Urban, "Nuclear Energy in Germany," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2016.

[13] H. Takahashi, "The Future of Japan's Energy Mix," Living Energy, No. 12, 68 (July 2015).