Why Is Germany Phasing Out Nuclear Power?

The German transition away from nuclear power has been driven more by public perception and opinion than its larger policy goals.

Energiewende is the German-language phrase for the country’s planned transition to a fully renewable energy mix. Energiewende states goals of 40 to 50 percent renewables in electricity by 2025, a 55 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, and a 50 percent reduction in energy consumption by 2050 based on 2008 emission levels.

Oddly, considering its emphasis on carbon dioxide emissions reduction, this plan centers on a full phase-out of nuclear power by 2022. Of course, the nuclear phase-out doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Energiewende is a combination of various policies—new renewables development, updating buildings to meet stricter efficiency standards, reducing energy consumption, and of course the phase-out of nuclear power.

Nuclear power, however, is a major source of carbon-free energy in Germany. In 2002, nuclear power constituted 30.9 percent of German commercial energy generation. In 2020, it’s down to 11.9 percent.

What would prompt a country seeking to sharply reduce CO2 emissions to get rid of its largest source of carbon-free energy?

The answer is that anti-nuclear sentiments have been pronounced in Germany since the late 1970s, and the current phase-out is the result of a decades-long progression.

A Brief History of Nuclear Power in Germany

In the 1970s, with fears of unstable and rising oil prices, and uncertainty around energy supply, nuclear power enjoyed strong support in Germany. Opposition to nuclear power began in 1975 with the protests at the construction site of the proposed Wyhl reactor. Demonstrators were ultimately successful and construction was prevented. This set the tone for later anti-nuclear demonstrations in the country and beyond.

The Soviet Union’s Chernobyl disaster in April 1986 further eroded Germany’s attitude toward nuclear power. The last commercial nuclear reactor to be built in Germany came online in 1989.

To reiterate, there have been no new commercial reactors built in Germany since the fall of the Berlin wall. Additionally, all of the East German reactors were shut down due to safety concerns.

In 1998, the new coalition government sought to phase-out nuclear power. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Green Party coalition entered into talks with utilities to determine a phase-out timetable, and in 2000 they arrived at a compromise, limiting the country’s reactors to a lifetime production of 2,623 billion kWh, which is roughly 32 years of operation on average.

This compromise, which was officially signed in 2001, resulted in the shuttering of the Stade reactor in 2003 and the Obrigheim reactor in 2005, as well as the beginning of decommissioning another already non-operational reactor in 2003. Under this plan, all reactors would have been phased out by 2022.

In 2002, “The Act on the Structured Phase-out of Nuclear Power for the Commercial Production of Electricity” was passed, which gave electricity output allowances to the country’s remaining nuclear plants which they could either use or transfer to other newer power plants.

In 2010 German Chancellor Angela Merkel reversed course from the earlier decision. This plan, among other things, extended the operating lives of the nation’s nuclear reactors an average of 12 years beyond the lifetimes agreed upon in 2000, leaving some plants operational until 2036. The hope was that nuclear energy would serve as a “bridging technology,” buoying the transition to renewables.

But, this plan was short-lived.

In 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station was struck by an earthquake and subsequent aftershocks and tsunamis, which disabled the plant’s power and cooling capabilities, causing reactor core melting. Although this incident caused no radiation deaths, it gave critics of nuclear power a new line of attack.

So after Fukushima, the German government reversed course on nuclear energy once again. Public officials announced all German reactors would be shut down by 2022, and eight reactors, including the nation’s seven oldest—Neckarwestheim 1, Philippsburg 1, Biblis A and B, Isar 1, Unterweser and Brunsbüttel—would be shut down as soon as possible. Grafenrheinfeld was closed in 2015, followed by Gundremmingen B in 2017, and Philippsburg 2 at the end of 2019.

Following Fukushima, all German reactors were carefully inspected and declared safe. The German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, and Nuclear Safety makes it clear that the decision to phase-out nuclear power was based more on perception than on real danger, noting that the Ethics Commission for a Safe Energy Supply “conclud[ed] that although the risks associated with nuclear energy may not have changed owing to the events in Fukushima, the way these risks are perceived has.”

The commission determined it would limit nuclear energy use as much as possible in the near term, and ultimately phase-out nuclear energy within a decade.

The problem is that these plant closures make it even harder for Germany to meet the emissions goals that it has set out for itself.

Public Opinion in Germany

What is interesting about Energiewende is that although it is a policy seemingly at odds with itself, and although many of the metrics of success that have been laid out in these policies are not being achieved, Energiewende enjoys wide popular support in Germany.

The 2010 Energy Concept acknowledged that rising prices would be part of the effort to increase efficiency and decrease energy use. But even this doesn’t seem to impact Germans’ view of either the nuclear phase-out, or Energiewende in general.

According to a 2015 survey produced by the Emnid, a polling institute for the German outlet BILD am Sonntag, 81 percent of Germans believe that it is the right decision to phase-out nuclear power, and only 16 percent think that it is wrong. This becomes even clearer when looking at those 14 to 29 years old—93 percent of this group support the transition.

And support is also there for costly subsidies. Fifty-three percent of respondents supported the more than 20 billion euro-per-year subsidization of renewable energies, with only 35 percent in opposition.

In a 2017 poll by GfK, 55 percent of respondents either “fully agree” or “agree” with the statement “The Energiewende is an important project that I personally deem to be right.” An additional 27 percent of respondents “agree somewhat.” Only 3 percent say that they fully disagree.

Poll after poll, the result is the same, the Energiewende enjoys immense popularity. But, are people out of touch with the costs of this policy? Expressing support for a policy in the abstract is different than enjoying its everyday impacts.

Do most Germans connect the transition to rising energy costs—German households are paying record-high prices for power—and the decrease in domestic energy security as more energy must instead be imported from outside of the country? Do they consider the benefit of preventing the incredibly unlikely event of a nuclear disaster to be more important than thousands of megawatts of clean energy availability?

Is Energiewende on Track?

At present, according to the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi), the four goals of the energy transition are to achieve 40-45 percent renewables in electricity generation by 2025, shutdown the last nuclear power plants by 2022, have 55 percent less greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 than there were in 1990, and achieve 50 percent less primary energy consumption in 2050 than in 2008.

The renewables in electricity goal has already been met when considering domestic production, with 53.8 percent of Germany’s publicly generated electricity being renewables. Roughly 3 percent of this comes from hydropower, 8 percent from biomass, 39 percent from wind, and 3 percent from solar. Domestic numbers don’t tell the whole story, however.

When you look at gross power consumption, only 42.6 percent was renewables in 2018. Energy imports account for a significant portion of Germany’s consumption. In 2018, Germany’s energy import dependency was 63.57 percent, and the vast majority of its imports were oil, gas, and coal. Strict regulations and limited available gas resources make domestic production of natural gas in Germany fairly limited, and the country imports 93 percent of its natural gas.

The disparity between German power generation and consumption renewables shares respectively show that Germany’s focus on renewables might not be fully in line with its energy needs. Nuclear and coal, which Germany is also planning to phase out eventually, are both able to provide reliable baseload power. This is not the case for wind and solar, which provide power intermittently when the wind blows and the sun shines. A focus on these generation sources requires the availability of other generation sources to carry the load when they are unavailable. These reliability issues may contribute to the need for energy imports, and the impact that this has on the share of renewables in actual consumption.

The goal of a 55 percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 is not on track. The Energy Transition Index, a tool put together by McKinsey and Company found that “Germany will hit its 2020 targets eight years late, and will only meet those for 2030 in 2046.” It also found that the goals for primary energy consumption and electricity consumption were not achieving their targets, they were only 57 percent and 39 percent on track for achievement respectively.

The German transition away from nuclear power is as popular as it is baffling. It has been driven far more by public perception and opinion than by any tangible impact on the achievement of other policy goals.

The hope to use nuclear power as a bridging technology was abandoned based on a single event thousands of miles away. With public opinion so powerful and so able to be quickly redirected, it will be interesting to see if Germany stays the course and abandons nuclear power—even in the face of surging energy costs and the prospect of missing key C02 emission reduction targets.