Technology

Why Germany has agonized over the future of nuclear energy


FREIBURG, Germany — Earlier this spring, the German government closed down the country’s three remaining nuclear power plants — the last vestiges of what was once a large domestic fleet.

While not everyone in Germany supported the closures, many here — particularly supporters of the Greens (Die Grünen), one of the world’s strongest and most powerful environmentally focused political parties — viewed the event as the happy culmination of a decades-long battle to rid the country of nuclear energy.

“We are embarking on a new era of energy production,” said Steffi Lemke, a Greens member and Germany’s federal minister for the environment and nuclear safety, in a CNN interview following the plant closures.

Nuclear energy is a controversial topic in most places, but Germany is notable for its historic antipathy toward the technology. “Anti-nuclear sentiment in Germany is widespread and longstanding, and it’s highly correlated with concern for climate change,” says Pushker Kharecha, deputy director of the Climate Science, Awareness, and Solutions Program at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

In the United States, Gallop polls going back 20 years have found that Americans are generally split on the subject of nuclear energy, though support for nuclear has swelled in recent years.

For its part, the White House has invested heavily in sustaining the country’s nuclear infrastructure, and President Joe Biden has also touted nuclear as an important component in the country’s quest for carbon neutrality. Many countries are following the same path based on similar climate calculations, and some experts support this position. “Nuclear is actually one of the cleanest and safest energy sources,” Kharecha says. For countries that want to mitigate climate change and reduce air pollution, he says that nuclear energy should be embraced — at least until better options come along.

But environmental advocacy groups and left-leaning American voters have traditionally opposed nuclear power. And, despite the president’s efforts, recent Gallup data suggest this is still the case: Less than half of Democrats back nuclear, compared to 62 percent of Republicans. It’s not all that odd that environmentally conscious Germans would support finishing off the country’s long-dying nuclear sector.

What’s harder to square is that as Germany was finalizing its plans to shutter its remaining nuclear plants, it was also reactivating old coal-fired power facilities, mining more lignite (a.k.a. brown coal), and generally ramping up its use of fossil fuels to address energy shortages brought on by the conflict in Ukraine. According to figures from Germany’s Federal Statistical Office, one-third of Germany’s electricity in 2022 was generated from coal. That represents an 8 percent increase compared to 2021. Meanwhile, the country’s use of nuclear-generated electricity fell by almost 50 percent during the same period.

No less a climate-change evangelist than Greta Thunberg has argued publicly that, for the planet’s sake, Germany should prioritize the use of its existing nuclear facilities over burning coal. Yet this is not the way the country has gone, and there has been relatively little public protest or political handwringing over the increased use of coal-generated power to address its deficits.

Why would a country that stands out for its environmentalist bona fides — where the reality of climate change and the push for renewable energy sources has been embraced by all major political parties — choose coal over nuclear in the midst of an energy crisis?

A clearer understanding of Germany’s energy choices may help other countries, including the US, better assess the risks and rewards of nuclear power.

Germany’s complicated history with nuclear energy

Christoph Löffler was just 9 years old when a reactor melted down at the Soviet nuclear facility near Pripyat in what is now northern Ukraine.

“I was only 9, but I remember Chernobyl,” Löffler says. “There was a shortage of milk, and people here paid more — double the price — for milk produced before a certain date.”

Löffler, 46, is an otolaryngologist. He’s also my neighbor. We live in Freiburg im Breisgau, a university city in southwest Germany that is one the greenest regions of the country — both literally and politically. Freiburg is nestled on the western edge of the Black Forest. It is one of the most eco-conscious cities in Europe, and Greens politicians represent the mayorship and the largest bloc of the city’s municipal council.

To an American visitor, Freiburg is reminiscent of Berkeley or Santa Cruz — one of those lush northern California college towns where a disproportionate number of people ride bikes, wear Birkenstocks year-round, and rank climate change as the most important consideration when casting their votes. In late 2021, 12,000 people here marched in the streets in support of climate action.

People with banners in German march through the street. One person holds an umbrella that reads “solar energie.”

Anti-nuclear movement supporters gather to celebrate the shuttering of Germany’s last nuclear power plants on April 15, 2023, in Munich, Germany.
Johannes Simon/Getty Images

The local citizenry’s anti-nuclear zeal is everywhere in evidence; flyers and graffiti around the city advocate for a future without nuclear power. A popular bumper sticker here, one that dates back to the 1970s, depicts a smiling sun and the slogan “Atomkraft? Nein danke.” (“Nuclear power? No, thank you.”)

When I asked Löffler about nuclear energy, he talked measuredly about its pros and cons. “However, I am more against it than for it,” he concluded.

Like other Germans I spoke to for this piece, he brought up the threat of nuclear disaster as a strong argument against the use of the technology. Another friend, a teacher, asked me if pro-nuclear Americans had forgotten the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in Pennsylvania. (I have even seen newspapers here refer to nuclear power plants generally as “drei Meiler,” or “Three Milers.”)

Chantal Kopf, a Greens politician here in Freiburg and elected member of the Bundestag (basically, Germany’s House of Representatives), likewise raised the specter of a nuclear disaster. “As Greens, we’ve always had in our tradition a more critical perspective on whether humans are capable of controlling every circumstance, and we’ve already seen really catastrophic accidents,” she says.

The Chernobyl meltdown captivated and horrified many Americans. But while the US shuddered, Germans suffered directly from the disaster’s fallout. It wasn’t just a question of tainted milk. Radioactive particles drifted across much of the German landscape. Sandboxes were nicknamed “death boxes.” Contamination turned up in meat, vegetables, fruits, and foodstuffs produced all over the country, and frightened parents didn’t know what to feed their children. Some experts estimated that hundreds of thousands of people on the continent would eventually develop Chernobyl-related cancers. That didn’t come to pass, but recent government analyses of German wild mushrooms found that 95 percent of samples still contained radioactive contamination from Chernobyl, and the residue of that disaster has likewise soaked deep into the nation’s views on nuclear power.

“Chernobyl was much bigger and closer to home for Germans than anything Americans have experienced,” says Sarah Wiliarty, an associate professor of government at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. “It was very much a lived threat.”

Wiliarty has published work on the history of Germany’s nuclear industry. She says the country’s anti-nuclear movement emerged alongside the environmental movement in the 1970s, and Chernobyl helped weld the two together.

While overall support here for nuclear has ebbed and flowed over the years, the Greens Party has never wavered in its opposition to nuclear. And another, more recent disaster helped align the rest of the country behind the Greens’ anti-nuclear agenda.

After Fukushima

At least by American standards, the nations of Europe are small and packed together. Calamities that befall one country often have repercussions for their neighbors.

At the start of the conflict in Ukraine, many Germans feared that the fighting would soon find its way to their borders. Similar fears have cropped up whenever the fighting has raged near one of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities, including Zaporizhzhia, Europe’s largest atomic power plant. The destruction on June 6 of the Kakhovka Dam, which is the ultimate source of the plant’s cooling water, raised new fears of a possible nuclear disaster.

Some Germans I spoke with told me these sorts of threats are evidence that nuclear power is simply not worth the risk; even if you believe that operator or technological error has been removed from the equation — a debatable position — unforeseen events could still induce a nuclear accident. “There is always the potential for an attack — a terrorist or cyber or war attack like we’re seeing in Ukraine,” says Kopf, the Greens politician. “It may be a small chance something like that happens, but if it happens, the consequences are so dramatic.”

More than a decade ago, just such a dramatic event caused Germany to abandon its nuclear industry.

In March 2011, a massive earthquake and consequent tidal wave induced the meltdown of three nuclear reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Just three days after that earthquake, Chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany’s two-party ruling coalition — which until that point had supported the continued use of nuclear energy — ordered the immediate closure of eight of the country’s 17 nuclear power plants. A few months later, the German Parliament approved, by a large majority, the total phase-out of Germany’s nuclear industry by the end of 2022. All of this helped accelerate the country’s shift toward renewable energies (namely wind and solar), which now generate about half of Germany’s electricity.

“Pre-Fukushima, the left [in Germany] had an anti-nuclear stance, but the right wing was more favorable to nuclear,” Wiliarty says. “After Fukushima, Merkel essentially said that if Japan can’t handle nuclear, we should not believe that we can handle nuclear, and most Germans agreed with her.”

Mentioning the legacy of WWII, Wiliarty adds that the possibility, however remote, of causing another tragedy on the European continent is enough to make nuclear energy a nonstarter for many Germans. (This may help explain why Germany continues to buy, situationally, nuclear-generated electricity from France even as it moves away from “homegrown” nuclear.)

The sunrise shines on the smoke coming out of a coal plant.

The sun rises behind Mehrum power plant in the Peine district. The coal-fired power plant has been back on the grid as a “market returnee” since August 2022.
Julian Stratenschulte/picture alliance via Getty Images

However, it would be an exaggeration to say that all Germans are anti-nuclear. Especially since the conflict in Ukraine has weakened the country’s energy stability and sent energy prices soaring, Germany’s pro-nuclear camp has gained support. A 2022 poll found that a majority of respondents would be in favor of extending the life of the country’s existing nuclear facilities, though a majority still oppose the construction of new plants.

In many places, not just Germany, this is a significant point of debate and division. Using the nuclear facilities you already have is one thing. Building new ones is quite another.

Following a parent meeting at our children’s school, a friend of mine — a geologist named Peter Geerdts, 46 — scowled when he recalled the demolition in 2020 of the nuclear plants at Philippsburg, a town about 100 miles north of Freiburg. One of those plants still had years of operational lifespan. “What a waste,” he says. “That was a perfectly good piece of infrastructure.”

He says his country’s push for more green and renewable sources of energy is all well and good. But there are times when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. With today’s technologies, renewables alone can’t meet his country’s needs. “So now we’re burning coal instead of using nuclear while trying to meet CO2 reduction targets,” he says. “It doesn’t add up.” Many I spoke with here voiced similar views.

But some energy experts I talked with said that, by and large, Germany has only shuttered nuclear plants that were end-of-life or otherwise unfit for service. “Most of the plants — except where the plants were having serious technical problems — were shut down when they would have been shut down anyhow,” says Miranda Schreurs, a professor of environment and climate policy at the Technical University of Munich.

On the broader question of whether the country’s abandonment of nuclear energy has made sense, she says that it has certainly involved uncomfortable trade-offs. “The priority no doubt has been the move away from nuclear, not coal,” she says. “But the German response isn’t either-or, it’s how do we get both out of the system as quickly as possible.”

Germany has committed to ending its use of coal by 2030. It has also become one of the world leaders in the development and use of renewables, something Schreurs says has only been possible because money and other resources that would have been sucked up by nuclear energy have instead been funneled into renewable technologies.

However, some argue that the country’s anti-nuclear priorities have come at a steep cost.

Does nuclear make sense for Germany — or for any country?

There are some unimpeachable justifications for opposing nuclear energy. There’s the risk of a catastrophic accident, first and foremost, and also the problem of storing or disposing of nuclear waste.

“​​From our point of view, it’s not right to say nuclear is a sustainable technology,” says Kopf, the Greens politician. “You need uranium, which is not extracted in an environmentally friendly way, and there is no real solution for nuclear waste.”

However, when making energy trade-offs, these risks must be balanced against the harms associated with the use of non-nuclear energy sources — such as air pollution and CO2 emissions produced by fossil fuels. According to estimates from Our World in Data, nuclear is cleaner and safer than any power source apart from solar. The number of deaths caused by either accidents or air pollution as a result of nuclear power is estimated to be just 0.03 deaths per terawatt-hour of energy produced. That is far, far below the 18 deaths and 25 deaths per terawatt-hour associated with oil and coal sources, respectively.

Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index (EPI) ranks the world’s countries in terms of their climate-change measurables, such as greenhouse gas emissions. Germany now slots in at 14th, one spot ahead of the United States. While a top-15 ranking is decent enough, nearly all of the other countries near the top of the index have improved their EPI score during the past decade. Germany’s score, on the other hand, has fallen, and that’s due mostly to the country’s CO2, NO2, and other fossil fuel emissions. Germany has the third-most “carbon intensive” electric grid among European countries, and by some estimates, the amount of carbon dioxide it emits to generate electricity is multiples higher than many of its neighbors.

A woman holds a sign that references Hiroshima.

A woman at a demonstration to celebrate the shuttering of Germany’s last nuclear power plants on April 15, 2023, in Munich, Germany
Johannes Simon/Getty Images

These emissions harm the planet, but they’re also poisonous for people. “By pursuing their complete nuclear phase-out policy over the past decade while continuing to heavily use fossil fuels, Germany has lost the opportunity to prevent thousands of premature air pollution-induced deaths,” says Columbia University’s Kharecha.

His comments are grounded in some of his own peer-reviewed research. Similar analyses, including a more-recent paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), a US-based nonprofit, have likewise found that Germany’s withdrawal from nuclear resulted in thousands of preventable deaths, mostly due to air pollution caused by the burning of coal. That NBER paper also concluded that the phase-out cost the country $12 billion.

Kharecha acknowledges that Germany has done “a very impressive job” of rapidly scaling up solar and wind sources of energy production. But he says the unreliability of renewables requires supplementation with other sources, and that’s where nuclear is needed. “Nuclear provides continuous ‘baseload’ power,” he says. “Renewables and nuclear really should be viewed as complementary choices, not binary ones.”

But other energy experts say renewables and nuclear make poor bedfellows. “One of the issues with nuclear is its inflexibility — it either operates at 100 percent or zero, and you can’t just flip a switch and turn it on or off,” says Andrzej Ancygier, a lecturer at New York University’s Berlin satellite campus and a senior energy and climate policy analyst at Climate Analytics. For renewables to work at scale, he says, flexible complementary energy sources are needed, and nuclear isn’t that.

Also, nuclear power plants have a finite lifespan. To extend that lifespan requires significant investments of both cash and time, and may come with mounting risks. “Operating a plant longer than is planned … in my opinion, it’s dangerous, but I can understand the discussion there,” Ancygier says. On the other hand, he argues that building new nuclear facilities now, in 2022, makes little sense: “Economically and from a climate change perspective, it is complete nonsense. They’re much, much more expensive than renewables, they come with more risks, and they always take much longer to build than planned.”

Schreurs, the Technical University of Munich professor, makes a similar point. She says that very few Western nations, even pro-nuclear countries, have managed to build new nuclear plants in recent years. Those that have tried — for example, the UK’s still-in-progress Hinkley Point power plant — have run into major delays and massive budget overruns. “The upfront costs of nuclear are immense, and the time to build new plants is on average something like 10 years,” she says. “If you’re talking about building new facilities to reduce emissions quickly, it’s hard to argue for nuclear over renewables.”

Columbia’s Kharecha agrees that high costs and long lead times are arguably the biggest challenges for new nuclear. But he says these are solvable problems, and history has shown that they can be overcome. “France and Sweden built lots of reactors very rapidly, decades ago, and neither country has experienced major problems with them,” he says.

But here again, there are valid counterarguments. In 2022, more than half of France’s nuclear reactors were shut down unexpectedly for maintenance reasons, and the country had to rely on German energy imports to meet its shortfalls. Schreurs highlights these problems as evidence that nuclear too can be unreliable.

What’s next for Germany?

Germany’s move away from nuclear and toward renewables has forced it to rely on fossil fuels. Proponents of this strategy say this reliance is temporary — a short-lived trade-off that, in the long run, will allow Germany to power itself cheaply, safely, and sustainably.

Some will no doubt scoff at this argument. In the US, many still view solar, wind, and other renewables as unreliable energy sources that cannot anchor a country’s electricity industry. But even some American observers say the German view of renewables’ potential may be closer to reality.

“When Germany first pivoted away from nuclear and prioritized renewables in 2000, a lot of people said this is insane, but they’ve had a lot more success than many anticipated,” says Wesleyan’s Wiliarty. “I think getting to a point where they’re not using nuclear or fossil fuels is realistic. The question is, how long will it take?”

Ancygier echoes these sentiments. He says German policymakers have at times vacillated in their support for renewables — something that has slowed progress. But while some political dissent persists, the current government has affirmed its commitment to renewables, and its stated policy aims are for these sources to make up 80 percent of the country’s electricity production by 2030.

The great debate over nuclear energy is sure to rage on, both here and in the United States. In the end, the lesson other countries may take from Germany is that abandoning nuclear in favor of safer and greener renewables is possible but that it comes with uncomfortable trade-offs. It also requires political will and broad public support. For much of the past 20 years, Germany has had both. Whether it can sustain them will likely determine how much success it has, and how quickly that success comes.

Markham Heid is a freelance journalist who chiefly covers health and science. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time magazine, and other outlets.