The Source of Germany's Nuclear Aversion

As the country faces a cold winter and a failed energy transition, it will need to overturn old dogmas to endure.

When Russia invaded Ukraine at the end of February, many aspects of German policy were turned on their head. After all, few expected that, by mid-2022, Germany would send weapons to a conflict zone and scupper plans for its much-awaited Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia.

Yet in all that change, some things have remained stubbornly the same. For example, take Germany’s stance on nuclear energy.

It is true that the threat of a belligerent Russia stirred the usually reluctant Germany to at least make some tough calls. Germany went along with European sanctions on Russia, a decision it surely knew was dangerous considering that around 55% of Germany’s natural gas came from Russia before the war. It declined to halt imports of Russian natural gas altogether, yet its intake has dwindled anyway, because Russia itself has reduced supply to Germany.

In the meantime, Germany has pledged to wean itself off Russian gas by 2024. It is now frantically trying to boost its gas reserves for the coming winter, and municipalities are crafting individual plans to lower electricity consumption. These run the gambit from lowering the thermostat to forgoing Christmas lighting. A new plan attempting to lower taxes for some gas consumers is scheduled to take effect in October and run through April of 2024, which some claim will offset the new surcharge introduced to help gas importers affected by rising prices.

Yet it is clear to all that these moves won’t be nearly enough for Germany to avoid a very difficult winter. The German economy is heading into a tailspin, and in August, wholesale electricity costs were up about 1,250% over 2020. Commerzbank has stated that it believes gas rationing is inevitable, regardless of Germans’ readiness to layer up sweaters. And the Kiel Institute for the World Economy predicts a 0.7% drop in GDP for Germany next year.

Facing hard realities, pressure is mounting for Berlin to reverse its longstanding position on shutting down Germany’s remaining nuclear reactors by the end of the year. The opposition and even some members of the sitting coalition government are urging a pause on the country’s more than two-decade quest to rid itself of nuclear energy.

The country’s traffic-light government, consisting of the center-left SPD (the Social Democrats, whose color is red), the Greens (Green), and the liberal FDP (the Free Democrats, associated with yellow), has so far decided to keep two of the remaining three nuclear reactors on standby until next spring. The Greens are especially opposed to the idea of extending the deadline, dismissing it as nonsensical.

Yet the public and political sector have started to question that stance in a way unseen in German politics for years. Even German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, from the SPD, has signaled that postponing the closures might be necessary. Finance Minister Christian Lindner, from the FDP, has likewise expressed skepticism that now is the right time for them to be taken offline. To be sure, anti-nuclear sentiments still run deep in Germany and cross the country’s party lines. The Greens may have started the campaign against nuclear power more than four decades ago, but ever since the Fukushima disaster in 2011, the campaign has been an unshakeable tenet of mainstream party platforms.

Germany is now facing a cold winter, a rattled public and a failed energy transition that was supposed to replace nuclear with natural gas until renewable energy was widely available. Plenty of people saw this coming. Yet Germany refused to act.

Germany’s allergy to all things nuclear long predated nuclear skepticism in other countries, and it is likely to remain a thread in German politics for decades to come. Yet the country is also now regretting its plan for a rapid departure, launched without viable alternatives in sight. The result of the clash between those two sentiments will very much determine the economic, political, geopolitical and environmental future of Europe’s largest player.

Germany’s Zeitenwende

In Berlin, pledges to increase military spending and recognition of the limits of diplomacy with autocratic powers like Russia are now par for the course. These major shifts occurred in a country not inclined toward speed except on the autobahn.

On February 27, a few days after the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Scholz delivered a groundbreaking speech on the floor of parliament. Major taboos of post-war German politics, such as remilitarizing or confronting Russia, were brushed aside he declared 2022 a watershed moment for Germany.

With the peace and stability of Europe on the line, the unthinkable in German policy was suddenly possible. In short order, decisions to purchase drones and meet the NATO requirement that 2% of GDP go toward military expenditures were a matter of course.

In some ways, then, it would make sense to believe that Germany’s aversion toward nuclear energy could be the next domino to fall. For one, with energy bills expected to triple this winter on the back of already astonishing growth, 78% of those surveyed in a Civey poll for Der Spiegel magazine supported extending the deadline for closing Germany’s three remaining nuclear power plants to next summer.

Today, the three plants generate 11% of the country’s electricity; in the past, nuclear accounted for upwards of one-third of Germany’s energy. Very soon, though, the total could go down to zero, if Germany decides to uphold the commitment it made in 2011 to bid farewell to nuclear by 2022 while expanding avenues for renewable energy. Natural gas was supposed to serve as a plan B, but that created dependency on Russia, especially since building out of renewable energy infrastructure lagged behind.

For now, the German government is maintaining its timeline to decommission one nuclear reactor at the end of the year and keep two others on reserve. One factor, claims Robert Habeck, the Economics and Climate Minister from the Green Party, is that keeping them running comes with a higher price tag than closing them as planned. To be sure, keeping nuclear plans operating does come with costs, but Habeck’s calculation is hard to justify among EU partners, though, who are scrambling to come up with enough energy to get through the winter and have found Germany’s nuclear aversion inconvenient, if not outright dogmatic.

Habeck and his fellow party members are also dubious about the green designation the European Union gave nuclear energy over the summer, of course, but that seems unlikely to be their real motivation. After all, Habeck has noted his willingness to swallow a reversal on coal, potentially firing those plants back up while he seeks to eliminate Russian natural gas from the country’s energy mix by 2024.

Beyond the supposed cost issue, the coalition government has said that reversing long-term plans already set in motion is simply unrealistic due to the difficulties in sourcing equipment. There are also the liability issues, and the matter of reissuing labor and maintenance contracts. The plants’ operators agree that keeping the reactors active wouldn’t be easy, but they have signaled that the work could be done if the decision were made sooner rather than later.

In fact, in July, a board member of TÜV, Germany’s well-respected testing and certification body, stated that not only could the reactors stay operational if the government only agreed to it, but that the plants decommissioned last December, which produced around 30 billion kilowatt hours—or approximately half of Germany’s nuclear energy at that point—could be brought back to life on relatively short notice.

This is not necessarily good news for Berlin. Rather than fears about contracts and bureaucracy, it is more likely that the current government believes that, if it allows the door on nuclear energy to remain open even a little bit, it will never close again. And that spells trouble for its hard-fought plans to make renewables the source of all its electricity demand by 2035. They know it would be hard to say goodbye to nuclear once it is reintroduced as a clean and efficient way to keep the economy running. The Greens’ high hopes for renewable have often been stymied by slow permitting procedures and a healthy dose of NIMBY-ism.

The Greens and SPD are also proud of their legacy in enacting the laws known as the Energiewende that set in motion the nuclear phaseout in 2000, during their first term in federal government. Without continued progress on that front, they would lose one of their major calling cards for their idea of transforming Germany. The Greens and SPD have already bucked tradition with their comfort with militarism; embracing nuclear would be another toppled pillar.

The Original Anti-Nuclear Activists

Still, to call today’s opposition to nuclear a product of sensible electioneering is also too simplistic. Especially for the Green Party, to reverse course on nuclear would be to reject the party’s own origin story.

In the 1970s, oil price shocks cast nuclear power as a smart option for domestically supplying energy needs for both West German consumers and industry. By the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, West Germany had nearly 30 reactors. Throughout that time, protest against nuclear energy was not uncommon. Nuclear weapons chaffed against Germans’ post-war pacifism, while nuclear energy upset their commitment to an ecologically-friendly lifestyle.

Germans involved in the student and democracy movements of the 1960s organized demonstrations against nuclear power, some veering into violent confrontations with the police that were eventually so frequent they became normalized. At one of the biggest, in 1975, 28,000 protestors occupied the construction site of a nuclear power plant in Wyhl and ultimately blocked the project. The accident at Three Mile Island in 1979 prompted 200,000 to march in Hannover and Bonn.

But with the founding of the Green party in West Germany in 1980, anti-nuclear sentiment was given a singular vehicle for political influence.

The Greens burst on the scene as mainly a single-issue party. Although they were also active in human rights, anti-war protests and reckoning with Germany’s Nazi past, the Greens were primarily known for their zeal in protecting the environment. This meant that they were vehemently opposed to fossil fuels and nuclear power. Although it is a carbon-free energy source, nuclear energy was nonetheless viewed as a hazard to the environment because of nuclear waste and potential for meltdown. And even through technological advancement and decades of nuclear plants running in Germany without incident, anti-nuclear sentiment has remained a cornerstone of the party.

Over time, that position has become more mainstream within German society as well. At first, nuclear power was relatively popular; it is what gave Germany the capability to grow its economy, the post-war measure of its power and strength. Yet, over time, the Greens’ calls for better stewardship of the environment sunk in, especially as the Greens’ cause appealed to church leaders and farmers to form broad anti-nuclear coalitions within German society.

No longer on the fringes, in 1985, the Greens’ Joschka Fischer became state environment minister in Hesse, ushering in the end of the party’s anti-establishment days. The Greens’ sunflower logo, once an emblem on protest posters, became a fixture in Germany’s political opposition.

In the second half of the 1980s, anti-nuclear sentiment among the public reached a fever pitch. At the start of that decade, massive protests had erupted in Bonn and all over Germany against the stationing of nuclear weapons in West Germany as part of NATO’s dual-track decision, which maintained that Berlin could both start arms reduction negotiations with the Soviets while simultaneously stationing additional nuclear weapons in Europe. The Chernobyl meltdown in 1986 intensified the situation. Worries over contamination led to crop destruction and the replacement of sandboxes on playgrounds across West Germany. The Federal Ministry of the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety sprung up that same year in response to Chernobyl.

In time, the Greens’ ecological stance gained even more support. The party was no longer a lone voice in German politics calling for an end to nuclear power. It was joined, in fact, by the center-left SPD, which saw a growing desire among their voters, too, to abolish nuclear energy. While the SPD called for a phase-out of nuclear power within the next decade, the Greens demanded immediate action.

The Berliner Republik

In 1998, the Green Party entered the federal government as a junior partner to the SPD. The red-green government symbolized a new, reunified Germany with its capital and seat of government in Berlin. The time was ripe to present to the world a modern, progressive Germany, conscious of its past but forging a new future for itself and a Europe whole and free. Part of that progressiveness was going green.

The German government did not need to work hard to sway the electorate toward a green transformation. Recycling, biking to work and organic foods were already customary in German society, born of resourcefulness during the post-war years as well as a cultural emphasis on respect for nature.

By the time Angela Merkel became chancellor in 2005, it was almost a given that, in its drive toward environmentalism, Germany would eventually cease use of nuclear power. It was under Merkel, from the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), that the Energiewende was put on turbo charge. Merkel even became known as the climate chancellor for expanding renewable energy targets and pledging to aggressively lower carbon emissions. But in 2010, she proposed postponing the nuclear exit until the mid-2030s, instead of the approximate three-decade deadline established in 2000.

Merkel, a quantum chemist by training, thought nuclear would be the best technology to bridge the present and a future in which Germany could switch completely to renewables. She feared higher electricity prices, observing that, despite the Energiewende, renewables were not being ramped up as fast as nuclear and coal were winding down. Slow and bureaucratic processes, she said, were hampering the spread of renewable energy in Germany.

Her tentatively pro-nuclear stance, though, came at the wrong time. The tsunami that destroyed Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant in March 2011 had political repercussions in Berlin. In state elections in Baden-Wuerttemberg a few weeks after Fukushima, the Greens were able to capture the conservative stronghold of Baden-Wuerttemberg, coming in second and forming a coalition with the SPD to crown the first Green Minister President of a federal state.

Meanwhile, protestors mobilized all over Germany to condemn Merkel’s proposed rethink of nuclear policy. She tried to make concessions, with a three-month moratorium on nuclear energy, but she saw the writing on the wall. Demonstrations continued and polls consistently showed that most Germans rejected nuclear power. By summer of 2011, Merkel not only revoked her government’s plan to extend the lifecycle of nuclear plants, but also accelerated the timetable for Germany’s nuclear exit to 2022.

Merkel may still have bet on a future with renewable energy, but she, along with the backing of the SPD, leaned on increased flows of natural gas from Russia as an insurance policy for Germany’s economic future. With Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, French Prime Minister François Fillon and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, Merkel formally opened the Nord Stream 1 pipeline in 2011, soon joined by the construction of Nord Stream 2.

There was debate in parliament but no public uproar when, in 2011, Berlin sped up the timeline for phasing out nuclear energy. The main sentiment, at least among anti-nuclear activists, was disappointment, given that the process was still expected to take a decade. The country was counting on the Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG), initiated in 2000 and amended over the years, which promoted wind and solar with tariffs and purchase guarantees to ensure wide adoption.

Merkel, originally a fan of nuclear power and pragmatic about her country’s slow rollout of renewable energy, focused her attention now on importing cheap natural gas from Russia.

Pipeline Politics

And so Germany had set the stage for the latest act in its energy play. For a country constantly claiming its dedication to Europe, its energy trade with Russia baffled partners within the EU and was an irritant in transatlantic relations. The conservatives and SPD referred to the North Stream pipelines as commercial projects, not political ones—a weak excuse to try to appease allies abroad.

Likewise, Germany often pointed out that, even during the height of the Cold War, economic ties with Russia were a way to keep communications channels open. The term Wandel durch Handel became a central plank in German foreign policy for achieving change through trade. But along the way, mutual trade turned into German dependency.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Soviet Union supplied nearly one-third of Germany’s natural gas. At the outset of the war against Ukraine this year, Russia provided well over half.

Arguments that the trade was all some grand plan to make Russia European became far harder to believe during and after the negotiations over Nord Stream. The architect of the pipeline plans in Germany, former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, advocated building the network as a direct link between Germany and Russia through the Baltic Sea, avoiding transiting fees through other countries, for example Ukraine, in Eastern Europe. Before he left office in 2005, the contract for Nord Stream 1 was signed, and Schroeder went on to become chief lobbyist while serving in the supervisory board of Nord Stream AG. Contracts for North Stream 2 got underway in 2015, despite Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. When the United States proposed issuing sanctions against Nord Stream 2, aiming to pressure Germany, Germans were outraged.

Even the most hard-brow German politician must now recognize their mistake. But to be fair, they were always going to be trapped in a perfect storm. The anti-nuclear movement is linked with Germany’s post-war transformation and its interpretation of modernity. It is tied to the success of Germany’s Green and SPD parties. And the decisions those parties made also coincided with Germany’s soft attitude toward Russia, built on historical guilt and a naïve belief in German power to manage the partnership. Further, although Berlin’s mistake of overestimating the country’s ability to build out the necessary infrastructure for a fully renewable economy is apparent now, a decade ago the country was more confident. “Made in Germany” labels were respected worldwide and the country was known as a manufacturing and export machine. It wasn’t so unreasonable to believe that the country could figure out renewables, too.

A New German Purpose

But what does Germany’s history say about the future? The European Union is urging member states to cut gas consumption by 15% in a bid to build a united front against Russia.

In the short term, it will be hard for Germany to stick to its transition away from nuclear. As the economy falters, the German public may become less rigid; in fact, Putin’s war against Ukraine has already created a majority in favor of prolonging nuclear energy in Germany.

Meanwhile, Germany’s EU partners will expect Germany to examine all avenues toward secure energy and European solidarity. And Germany will have to take that pressure more seriously than it has in the past. Not only has the war against Ukraine shattered Germany’s reputation and exposed its dependency on cheap Russian gas, it has also placed Germany in an economically-vulnerable position from which it will find it much harder to bigfoot its European partners.

Germany’s stance on nuclear may seem irrational, but it is in fact a fully logical result of a collision of history, economics and idealism that all pointed the country down one path. And that’s a hard but important lesson for anyone puzzling over stalled nuclear programs in other countries. In so many cases, decisions to phase out or avoid nuclear are not just a failure to understand the environmental and economic benefits of the energy source. Rather, they come from a tangle of pressures, ideas and constraints that are hard to even unravel, much less push aside.

For Germany’s part, now forced to adapt quickly, it could come to appreciate nuclear energy’s original role as a temporary bridge to renewable energy. Or the existing plants could simply stay in place as Germans get comfortable with (or at least turn a blind eye toward) what they previously shunned. Getting over the nuclear taboo would signal that Germany is eager to take up its intended role after reunification: a modern, progressive country, conscious of its past but ready to forge a new, better future for itself and a Europe whole and free.