The German Nuclear Energy Phase Out: Neither Revolution Nor Going it Alone

Available in German

The nuclear energy phase out in Germany is no revolution. From the outside, it may appear as though the German government, following the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima, had come to some sort of radical decision. The withdrawal from nuclear energy in Germany is, however, a process that has persisted for quite some time. Having been slowed down temporarily, the process has now once again found its way back to the old rate of implementation.

In 2000, the red-green governing coalition (the Social Democrats and the Green Party) in the German government, together with the four companies in charge of operating Germany’s nuclear energy plants, came to a phase out agreement, in which the last of the seventeen German nuclear power plants were to have been shut down by 2022. According to the newest resolution from the incumbent black-yellow coalition (the CDU/CSU and the FDP), the last nuclear energy plant should be switched off by 2022 as well. In this regard, it was the decision from half a year ago to extend the lifespan of German nuclear power plants that was a gaffe, while the current phase out resolution simply leads back to the status quo.

Is not Germany, however, going it alone when it comes to abandoning atomic energy? Yes and no. Recently, Switzerland decided to decommission its five nuclear power plants, albeit not until 2034. Furthermore, the Italian government’s plans to enter back into atomic energy failed spectacularly in a referendum.

It appears that the worldwide perspective on nuclear energy following Fukushima is rather gloomy – and this after the global “renaissance” of atomic energy, of which the nuclear industry spoke of for years prior to Fukushima but failed to successfully put into reality. While a considerable amount of nuclear power plants are to be built in China and other Asian economic powers, the overall number of existing plants worldwide is actually declining. Interestingly enough, this is not a result of safety considerations – as in Germany – that prevent the building of new plants. Rather, it is talk of economic considerations in opposition of new plants, a phenomenon not exclusive to liberalized electricity markets.

Nevertheless, Germany’s resolution to phase out nuclear energy is characterized, when compared to worldwide figures, by its relative speed, as well as the size of energy capacity needing to be replaced. This is made possible on the one hand by a broad social consensus in Germany to do away with nuclear energy. For quite some time, the German population has opposed the idea of atomic energy. The anti-atomic energy movement has existed in Germany since the 1970s, and it gained even greater support following the nuclear catastrophe in Chernobyl. Now, with the events in Fukushima, the idea of a swift abandonment of nuclear energy is also a consensus among all parties in the German government.

Today, unlike in 1986 following Chernobyl, there exists a very realistic alternative in renewable energy. Here, Germany has made rapid developments in just the last few years. Through the guaranteed feed-in tariff system in place for renewable energy, the portion of renewable energy has risen to 17 percent of the total power supply in Germany – at a faster rate than anticipated. This system has also led to an increased industry for renewable energy, making its build-up, and the subsequent draw-down of atomic energy, possible.

Despite these positives, one must still consider the critical aspects of the way the decision to withdraw from atomic energy was taken. It appeared correct to draw upon the powerful sentiments about Fukushima to make the decision. But for a decision of such consequence, namely the transformation of the entire energy supply, it is not only important to garner the support of the majority of the society but of as many actors as possible. The critical voices coming from some associations of traditional industries, as well as isolated pockets within the government parties, are evidence that a broader social discussion about the withdrawal would have been meaningful.

The decision now stands and there is nothing more to change. It is, however, important to secure societal consent on the upcoming decisions regarding the build-up of renewable energy sources. For example, the question of where wind parks and power lines should be built in a densely populated Germany must be discussed. To this, the Ethics Commission, which had prepared the phase out decision for the German government, has already suggested the establishment of a National Forum and a Parliamentary Delegate for the energy transition.

In addition, the German discussion and decision has hardly been communicated outwardly and, therefore, has provided some lack of understanding for the partners in the EU. According to the Treaty of Lisbon, each member state has sovereign authority over their use of energy sources. However, the atomic energy phase out in Germany will influence neighbor states like France that traditionally export energy to Germany in spring and fall, and import from Germany in summer and winter. Here, it is valid to say that Germany must communicate better on future developments.

This need for communication is all the more valid, as the world will inevitably watch the German experiment with curiosity. If Germany succeeds in creating the change in energy that it intends to – technically, in a timely manner, and in a way that actually strengthens the German economy – then it could potentially inspire similar steps to be taken by other states.

Marcel Viëtor is Program Officer for Energy and Climate at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) and was a Visiting Fellow at AGI in June 2011.

This essay appeared in the June 17, 2011, AGI Advisor and was translated by Brian Veber. For the original German version of this essay, please click here.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.