The conventional wisdom holds that the nuclear phaseout in Germany is a reaction to the Fukushima disaster on March 11, 2011. The story goes something like this: Fukushima changed Germany’s views on nuclear energy by “scaring” German politicians and constituents into pursuing a path that transitions away from nuclear energy and embraces renewables – with coal power providing a base during the transition period. The logic of this line of argument is that the Fukushima Daiichi disaster made the costs of nuclear energy – both human and economic – more salient and the benefits less so.
The implication of this argument is that as time passes and the huge costs of the Fukushima disaster become less salient, and as concern about higher electricity prices or GHG emissions from coal-fired power plants grow , German politicians may go back on decisions to phase out nuclear. But this argument is flawed, and neglects underlying conditions which negate prospects for a return to nuclear in Germany. To put it bluntly: nuclear is dead in Germany, but not purely because of Fukushima. Fukushima expedited the process of phasing out nuclear in Germany, but it did not serve as the main driver of the shift in German preferences against nuclear power. Both policies and political opposition to nuclear in the first decade of the 21t century indicate that opposition to nuclear power was strong in Germany, even absent the Fukushima disaster.
The German nuclear debate goes back several decades, but the decision to slowly phase out nuclear dates back to the early 2000s. In 2000-2001, Environment Minister Juergen Tritten, with backing from Chancellor Gerhard Schrouder, led negotiations with Germany’s utility giants, with the goal of securing an agreement to phase out nuclear power. Although the negotiations were contentious, Tritten succeeded in signing an accord; a piece of legislation, Germany’s Nuclear Exit Law, soon followed, and mandated that utility companies close down their oldest reactors as part of a plan to phase out nuclear by 2020. In November 2003, Germany’s oldest nuclear reactor, Stade, closed down, and in May 2005 the Obrigheim reactor closed – reducing nuclear capacity by 672 Megawatts and 357 megawatts, respectively.
But policies are not the only indicator of widespread support of phasing out nuclear: political consensus and public opinion polls in the late 2000s (pre-Fukushima) reflect this change in preferences for nuclear energy. A January 2007 public polling survey found that 47% of respondents supported a shorter-term nuclear phaseout as proposed by the Social Democratic Party and the Green Party, while a further 31% supported a longer-term nuclear phaseout. Only 17% supported a complete cancellation of the nuclear phase-out. Disaggregated by political party affiliation, 74% of the CDU/CSU supported a long term phaseout, while supporters of the FDP – a right wing party generally considered to be the most “pro-nuclear” on the German political scene – overwhelmingly supported either a long term nuclear phaseout (47%) or a short-term phaseout (25%). SPD, the Left, and the Greens ranged between 85-95% in favor of a long term nuclear phaseout. The major political parties agreed that Germany should phase out nuclear – the issue was mainly one of timing.
A separate poll, using a different sampling strategy in February 2011, one month prior to the Fukushima disaster, found similar results. 76% of respondents were either strongly opposed to nuclear or somewhat opposed to nuclear, while only 5% were strongly in favor of nuclear energy. The remainder were only somewhat in favor of nuclear energy.
So, both public polls and policies of the German government pre-March 2011 indicate that there was strong opposition to nuclear power prior to the Fukushima disaster. It is true that in 2009 Angela Merkel reversed the previous decision by the SDP/Green coalition to phase out nuclear power, but this policy was enacted in the face of wider public opposition.
However, after Fukushima, this policy could not be sustained. The German government’s response – to shutdown eight nuclear reactors in August 2011 – gained press attention and led many to believe that irrational fear was the main driver of the German state’s response. But really, the decision to close several nuclear reactors and to phase out nuclear by 2022 only expedited a phaseout process that been authorized once and which the German voters strongly supported anyways. There are other reasons why nuclear is not viable in Germany (stay tuned for future posts!), but political obstacles and barriers indicate that, for better or for worse, there will be no return to nuclear in Germany.
Sources:Falker, Jurgen. Public Opinion on Nuclear Energy in Germany. pgs.33-34  TNS Infratest, February 2011.