Nuclear exit: Germany leads the way (May 2011)

In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident, many countries are undertaking major reviews of their energy strategies – with Germany announcing the most ambitious intentions. David Elliott, Open University, looks at the radical changes that are afoot.

Article for SGR website, 17 May 2011

Germany’s move away from nuclear power

There has been strong opposition to nuclear power in Germany since the 1970s, when there were major demonstrations against proposed new plants. Anti-nuclear and pro-renewable energy policies were at the core of the emerging Green party, and were reinforced by the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Subsequently, with the greens becoming part of a coalition government in 1998, a nuclear phase-out policy was established, based on limiting the life of existing plants. In parallel, Germany embarked on a major expansion of renewable energy – becoming a world leader in wind and solar power. By 2010, it had installed 24 gigawatts (GW) of wind generation capacity and over 10GW of solar photo-voltaics (PV) – aided by an innovative feed-in tariff support system. Around 370,000 jobs had been created by then as a result, with many more expected as the programme developed (1).

However, with the rise of centre-right politics, and the greens out of the coalition, Angela Merkel’s government sought to soften and delay the nuclear phase-out and also started cutting back on the feed-in tariff – although there was never any suggestion of a nuclear new build programme.

But then, in March 2011, the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan changed the situation dramatically. The German government immediately shut down all of Germany’s oldest nuclear plants. That was perhaps surprising until you remember that an election was due. And the greens were looking very strong again; there were massive demonstrations across the country after Fukushima with 250,000 people campaigning for a complete and rapid phase out.

In the event, despite its temporary nuclear moratorium, the government still did badly in the elections, losing in key areas (the greens got 24% of the vote), and with polls showing that public support for nuclear, already very low at around 10%, had fallen to 5%. In April, Secretary of State for the Environment and Nuclear Safety, Jürgen Becker, told Reuters:“A decision has been taken to shut down eight plants before the end of this year and they definitely won’t be reactivated. And the remaining nine will be shut down by the end of the decade.” (2)

This policy was then backed by the German Association of Energy and Water Industries (BDEW), which said that nuclear power should be phased out by 2020 or at the latest by 2023. It called on the government to set everything in motion to speed up the transition toward a stable, ecologically responsible and affordable energy mix without nuclear energy. “The catastrophe at the Fukushima reactors marks a new era and the BDEW therefore calls for a swift and complete exit from using nuclear power.” (3)

The association represents about 1,800 utilities, among them the operators of the country’s 17 nuclear reactors, which, when all were running, generated 26% of Germany’s electricity. The two biggest operators, E.ON AG and RWE AG, opposed the decision, but were outvoted.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said “We want to end the use of nuclear energy and reach the age of renewable energy as fast as possible.” (4)


Will Germany succeed?

German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen told Der Spiegel thathe was confident that it could be done, given the rapid growth of renewables and the potential for energy saving, but “everyone will have to invest in the energy turnaround. The expansion of renewable energy, the power lines it requires and the storage facilities will cost money. That has to be clear. But after the investments are made, the returns will follow – I don’t doubt that.” (5)

So what is envisaged? Röttgen explained :“First we’ll have to focus on retrofitting buildings. The €460 million ($653 million) currently budgeted for that program won’t be enough.”

Secondly there would be a major expansion of renewables, although he said there would be no need to cover Germany with wind farms, as some critics had suggested. “We will achieve the biggest capacities by replacing smaller wind turbines on land with more powerful ones and by generating wind energy in the North and Baltic Seas.”

He concluded “The events in Fukushima marked a turning point for all of us. Now we jointly support phasing out nuclear energy as quickly as possible and phasing in renewable energies.” (6)

Germany already gets 17% of its electricity from renewables, and the potential for expansion is certainly there in the long term. In addition to backing a nuclear phase out, last year’s ‘Energiekonzept’ review, produced by the Federal Environment Ministry (BMU), projected that renewables could supply 35% of electricity by 2020, 50% by 2030, 65% by 2040, and 80% by 2050 (7). It saw offshore wind as a major growth area – with 25GW in place by 2030. At present Germany has around 27GW of onshore wind in place, plus around 16GW of solar PV. In addition to a large hydro contribution, including pumped storage facilities, major new geothermal and biomass projects are on the way, with biogas seen as key new option, replacing imported natural gas. The review also called for primary energy consumption to be halved by 2050, via a major energy efficiency programme. Overall, the review aimed for a 40% by 2020 CO2 reduction target.

With nuclear power to be removed by around 2020, the renewables expansion programme and energy saving initiatives will have to be accelerated – a somewhat slower nuclear phase-out was assumed in the plan. A draft of a new plan, reported on Dow Jones Newswires, said “After the catastrophe in Japan, we will accelerate the fundamental conversion of our energy supply already laid out in the [2010] energy concept” i.e. the ‘Energiekonzept’ review.

Among measures to boost renewable energy, the draft plan envisions a €5 billion programme to increase offshore wind power, financed by the German state development bank, KfW, while existing wind parks should be ‘repowered’ by replacing old turbines with more efficient models. The draft plan also demands an “offensive” to designate new areas for wind parks and plan the construction of ‘electricity highways’ to bring renewable power from windy northern Germany to industrial areas in the south. There has even been talk of using some of the 7,800 kilometres of high voltage grid run by the German railways for part of this. It also planned major increases in grid integration with the rest of the EU. The Wall Street Journal said the report “marks a significant shift as Germany ceases to debate whether to phase out its reactors and focuses more on how quickly and at what cost.” (8)

It won’t be easy. But the political will seems to be there to try.


Can Japan follow Germany’s lead?

What about Japan? After all, it now has a much more direct and pressing incentive to change its energy policy. The very large anti-nuclear demonstrations in Germany were not matched in size by those in Japan, but then public protest is a rare thing in that country – and getting 7,500 on the street, including 3,000 in the centre of Tokyo, was surprising. But a 2009 government poll had found 54% of Japan’s people were uneasy about nuclear power, so after Fukushima things began to unravel.

After many protests concerning the five-reactor Hamaoka complex, on the coast near an earthquake fault around 200km from Tokyo, the government called for it to be shut, while sea defences and safety upgrades were installed. A government analysis had predicted an 87% chance of a magnitude eight earthquake in the Tokai region within 30 years with the risk of a major tsunami (9).

The government has also now said that it would abandon its plan to expand nuclear power. Before Fukushima, nuclear power was supplying 29% of Japan’s electricity, and there were plans to expand that to 50%. But now the emphasis will be on renewables and energy efficiency (10).

Japan has no significant indigenous fossil fuel resources and imports most of its energy and it has downplayed renewables in favour of nuclear power. However, it was at one time a world leader in solar PV production, and it has extensive renewable resources, including offshore wind, wave, solar, hydro, biomass and geothermal.

A 2003 report commissioned by Greenpeace – ‘Energy Rich Japan – Full renewable energy supply of Japan’ – claimed that Japan could make a full “transition to clean, renewable energy without any sacrifice in living standards or industrial capacity” (11). Technology has moved on massively since 2003, so, although demand has risen, a transition from nuclear should not be out of the question, over time. After all, some of Japan’s nuclear capacity has, in effect, phased itself out – very painfully.

It will be interesting to see if the new direction adopted in Japan will be copied elsewhere in Asia. For example, Thailand and Malaysia are currently reconsidering their nuclear programmes. India is having a major (and very bitter) internal debate, while China has halted all new nuclear development projects, pending a review. It should perhaps be noted that China’s renewables programme was already much larger than its nuclear programme. It is now the world leader in wind, with 42GW in place and gets 17% of its electricity from renewables, with plans for massive expansion. It was aiming to get 15% of its total energy (not just electricity) from renewables and other low carbon options by 2020, whereas it was only planning to expand nuclear from the current 2% of electricity to 4% by 2020 – and that may now change. It has already indicated that it may double its solar PV targets (12).


Will others countries follow?

Technology is not really the issue: many studies have suggested that the EU and indeed the world could expect to get up to 100% of their electricity and most of their total energy, from renewables by 2050 (13). Even the conservative International Energy Agency says that 75% is possible (14), a view confirmed by a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which says up to 77% (15). The real issue is thus the political will to focus on renewables and the efficient use of energy, rather than diverting yet more resources to nuclear.

For some countries, it is a matter of making a transition. Within Europe, Spain and Belgium already have nuclear phase-out policies and, following Fukushima, there have been major protests against nuclear power, with for example 20,000 marching in Barcelona. Italy voted in a referendum in 1987, after Chernobyl, to close its existing power plants, but the government had recently pushed ahead with legislation enabling a reversal of that policy. However, after Fukushima, public disquiet mounted and the Italian government reverted to a ‘no nuclear’ policy.

In Sweden, which had recently reversed its nuclear phase-out policy, opposition rose sharply after Fukushima, with 36% of Swedes saying they wanted nuclear power phased out, up from 15% in 2008, and only 21% now being in favour of further capacity, down from 47% in 2008.

In the USA, support has also collapsed. 71% had favoured nuclear power, according to a survey for the Nuclear Energy Institute carried out before Fukushima, but afterwards support fell to 39%, with 52% opposed, according to the Pew Center. An ABC/ Washington Post poll came up with even more dramatic figures – 33% for, 64% against – although less striking was a Gallup poll which reported 44% for and 47% against.

Public opinion polls are often misleading (results depend on the question asked) but there is no mistaking the strength of opposition in India where, following Fukushima, violence erupted at a demonstration against the proposed Jaitapur nuclear power plant. Police officers fired on the crowd, killing one protestor and injuring others.

It has to be remembered that all this is about a technical decision as to which energy system to use. Many countries have already made up their minds. Within Europe, Austria, Denmark, Portugal, Ireland, Norway, Greece are amongst those who do not see any need for nuclear power and have none. Many others seem likely to join them now, avoiding or phasing out nuclear power. However, Russia is sticking with nuclear come what may, as are some ex-Soviet states in the east, while within western Europe, France, Finland and the UK are the main remaining pro-nuclear enthusiasts – the UK having the largest proposed new build programme. This is in a country with probably the world’s best renewables resources – most of which are so far untapped. However, Scotland’s ambitious renewable energy plans show that change is happening within at least some parts of the country. With Germany, Italy, Japan and possibly others now moving in the opposite direction it will be interesting to see what becomes of the much touted nuclear renaissance.

David Elliott is emeritus professor of technology policy at the Open University. He is editor of 'Renew', the newsletter of the Network for Alternative Technology and Technology Assessment -



(1) BMU: renewable energy jobs estimates.


(3) BDEW: reported in Washington Post, 8 April 2011.



(6) Editorial: A Green Future for Europe’s Biggest Economy: What Germany Must Learn from Chernobyl and Fukushima. German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, Der Spiegel, 27 April 2011.

(7) BMU: Energiekonzept plan 2010.




(11) Greenpeace (2003).


(13) For EU, see: and


For global, see:


(14) IEA (2010). Energy Technology Perspectives: Scenarios and Strategies to 2050.

(15) IPCC (2011). Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation.