Understanding the German Nuclear Exit


On April 15, Germany permanently closed its three remaining nuclear power plants. Internationally, the decision to phase out (carbon-free) nuclear power at a time when the world is laboring to move towards non-fossil energy sources is baffling. But the German nuclear exit, known domestically as the Atomausstieg, is the culmination of a fifty-year democratic process of risk appraisal: proof that sustained engagement by broad swaths of the population, including some unlikely alliances, can give future generations a voice and radically transform a country’s environmental policy.

flag saying "atomic energy? no thanks" in front of a big rally

On April 15, Germany’s last remaining nuclear power plants were permanently closed. Internationally, the German nuclear exit, known as the Atomausstieg, is sometimes seen as a knee-jerk reaction to the Fukushima accident – a decision driven by fear rather than rationality. In fact, Germany is home to the most sustained and broadly supported anti-nuclear protests in history. First passed into law by a left-of-center government in 2000, the country’s decision to end nuclear power was the result of a fifty-year democratic process of societal risk appraisal, in which large sections of the German population confirmed time and again that they found the risks of nuclear power to outweigh its benefits.

Germany’s unique stance on nuclear power is inseparable from the equally unique history of the German Green movement, which emerged in tandem with the anti-nuclear citizen protests. Beyond environmental protection and solidarity with future generations, the anti-nuclear campaign came to represent the fight for transparency and participation in decision-making, the democratization of energy sources, the acceleration of the transition to renewable energy, and nuclear non-proliferation – key principles of the German Green Party.

A fight for democracy, the environment, and intergenerational justice

The origins of the German anti-nuclear movement date to the early 1970s, when plans to build a nuclear power plant in the small southwestern town of Wyhl were announced. The Wyhl plant promised to bring jobs, clean energy, and prosperity to the region. But concerns about contamination of the surrounding countryside grew, and when the town’s inhabitants were excluded from the decision-making process, local opposition steadily mounted. Students from the nearby city of Freiburg, farmers from the surrounding wine areas, concerned families, members of the clergy, and the local hunting association joined forces and formed an unlikely but powerful alliance.

However, their concerns were broadly ignored by decision-makers, and earthworks began on 17 February 1975. The following day, local residents occupied the site and were subsequently evicted by police. Images of farmers and their wives being dragged through the mud captured national attention and sparked support and further demonstrations all over the country. Shortly afterwards, in March 1975, the Freiburg court ordered construction to be suspended and the developers abandoned the project. In the years that followed, protests like the one in Wyhl spread throughout Germany, given further urgency by the Three Mile Island accident in the US in 1979.

“Protesting nuclear power came to mean fighting against decision-making by the rich and powerful and for local, community-based decision-making.”

For many green-minded Germans, protesting nuclear power came to mean fighting against decision-making by the rich and powerful and for local, community-based decision-making. It meant fighting against technologies involving uncertain risks and for the environment and the future generations that would bear the brunt of the costs. And increasingly, it meant fighting for peace, against nuclear proliferation and war. Anti-nuclear protest coalitions were surprisingly broad. While the burgeoning German environmental movement grew up under the auspices of the anti-nuclear movement, the protests were also supported by the 1968 student movement and the labor movement (including future SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder), as well as local farmers, families, and elected officials.

The Green movement emerged alongside the anti-nuclear movement

With the creation of the West German Green Party, die Grünen, in 1980, the anti-nuclear movement gained a foothold in politics. In addition to the risk of a nuclear accident and the challenges of storing nuclear waste, the Greens rallied against the dangers of weaponizing civilian nuclear technology. Connecting the fight for peace with the fight for a clean environment, the anti-nuclear protest movement managed to unite German progressives. As environmental historian Joachim Radkau notes, “The fact that Germany is home to both the internationally strongest anti-nuclear movement and the strongest Green party is obviously causally related.”

The Green campaign against nuclear energy gained large-scale support following the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1989. The relative proximity of Germany to the accident site exacerbated fears of radiation and prompted further protests. Small-scale incidents at German nuclear plants leading to the contamination of nearby lakes and rivers further fueled mistrust among the German population.

In 1998, thirty years after the start of the first nuclear protests, the Greens entered government alongside the left-of-center Social Democrats (SPD). Together, they agreed on Germany’s nuclear exit. The 2000 nuclear consensus stipulated the closure of all nuclear power plants by 2022. The Fukushima meltdown in 2011 gave renewed impetus to the phase-out and further broadened its support among all main parties in Germany. Though Russia’s invasion of Ukraine raised fears over energy security and delayed the phase-out by a few months, Germany’s Atomausstieg, decennia in the making, has now been completed.

“The fact that Germany is home to both the internationally strongest anti-nuclear movement and the strongest Green party is obviously causally related” – Environmental historian Joachim Radkau

Arguments in favor of an Atomausstieg

Germany’s nuclear exit is not just about history. Even today, nuclear power is widely perceived as detrimental to the goals and values of the Green movement and of many other progressive movements across the country.

1. Nuclear power remains risky: from potential accidents and attacks to problems with waste

Ongoing safety risks: The fear of nuclear disaster motivates many anti-nuclear activists. As safety technologies have advanced, the focus has shifted from the risk of a new technology causing huge meltdowns to the potential for accidents due to human error, natural disasters, reactor age, or poor maintenance. As independent nuclear consultant Mycle Schneider notes, “Reactor safety depends above all on a ‘culture of security’, including the quality of maintenance and training, the competence of the operator and the workforce, and the rigor of regulatory oversight.” Maintaining this culture of security, and thus the safety of nuclear power generation, requires constant attention and significant investment, even in new, state-of-the-art reactors.

The Greens also point to the risks of aging reactors. Plants built in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s typically have a roughly 40-year lifespan; their current average age is a little over 35 years. Many Germans look warily at reactors in neighboring countries, such as France and Belgium, which are kept open decades beyond their intended lifespans. These plants face increasingly frequent shutdowns due to erosion damage and cracks in pipes and security systems, as well as intermittent accidents that leak toxic substances into the environment.

Though every reactor has its own risk profile, a statistical study by three leading nuclear safety scientists estimates that industry learning and increased safety regulations since the 1970s have reduced the accident rate to around 0.003 events/plant/year. However, while accident frequency has decreased, their average cost has increased. Overall, this still amounts to a 50 per cent chance of an accident equivalent to Fukushima (with more than 1 billion dollars in damages) occurring every 60 to 150 years, and a large accident (with around 20 million dollars in damages) every year. Much like the Hippocratic Oath, the core tenet of the precautionary principle – one of the pillars of German environmental law – is to do no harm. If harm is likely but not definitively provable, we must err on the side of caution and put in place the necessary safeguards. In the context of nuclear energy, this means that although the likelihood of accidents is relatively low, their effects could be so devastating that Germany would rather not take the risk. Germany’s sustained anti-nuclear protests demonstrate that its population broadly supports this calculus – and has done so for decades.

Increased risks associated with climate change: Fukushima demonstrated the risk that natural disasters pose to nuclear power plants. Increasingly, many who are critical of nuclear power worry about the impact of ever more severe and unpredictable climate change-induced weather events. The majority of nuclear plants in the US and Europe were built in the 1970s, when climate change was not a consideration in the design or placement of plants and waste storage sites. As a result, many are not adequately protected against the increased risk of wildfires, flash floods, or hurricanes. Nuclear power plants also require up to 1 billion gallons of cooling water a day, which becomes difficult to provide as heatwaves and droughts increase.

National security and geopolitical risks: Germany’s dependence on Russia for its energy needs—long criticized by the Green Party—became painfully clear after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the past year, Europe (and Germany in particular) has successfully transitioned away from Russian oil and gas. Thanks to imports from the US, Norway, and Algeria, EU reliance on Russian gas has decreased to about 12 percent (down from 54 percent in 2021). Moving away from dependence on Russia’s so-called “nuclear superstore” – state-owned Rosatom – is proving far more difficult, however. Rosatom builds reactors and provides materials, training, support, maintenance, disposal facilities, and decommissioning, as well as favorable financing. In 2021, Russia supplied 20 percent of all uranium used in Europe. While countries have been searching for alternatives, complicated supply chains, long contracts, and Russia’s huge market power – equivalent to that of all OPEC countries combined in the oil sector – make this a challenging undertaking. The Greens also warn that this vulnerability stretches beyond dependence on materials to the possibility of (cyber)attacks on nuclear plants and waste sites.

No solution for nuclear waste: Worries about the disposal of nuclear waste are among the oldest and most prevalent concerns among anti-nuclear movements. To date, no permanent solution has been found to deal with nuclear waste – beyond burying it. Many countries, including the US and Germany, have been unable to identify permanent storage locations as a result of unsuitable geological conditions as well as opposition from local communities. Currently, nuclear waste is stored in dry casks at nuclear facilities or in temporary storage areas. In Germany, around 600,000 cubic meters (160 million gallons) of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste is to be permanently stored in decommissioned mines in a process which will take until roughly 2060. Over a third of this waste will first have to be retrieved from its current location in Asse II, a former salt mine in Lower Saxony, where unstable shafts are partially flooded with groundwater, severely undermining the trust of the German population in secure storage. This process is expected to cost billions.

Efforts are also being made to locate a storage site for a further 28,000 cubic meters (7.4 million gallons) of high-level radioactive waste, which will need to be stored for millions of years before its radioactivity fades. As former Minister for the Environment Barbara Hendricks stated in a 2017 speech, “More than 30,000 generations will be affected by a nuclear technology that we have only used for 60 years.” An expert commission set up specifically for this purpose in 2013 is estimated to need until at least 2031 to find a suitable location, with another 60 years required to build the repository and transport waste to the site.

“More than 30,000 generations will be affected by a nuclear technology that we have only used for 60 years” – Barbara Hendricks, former German environment minister

Given the breadth of the risks involved, large swaths of the German population felt and still feel considerable discomfort about the use of nuclear power. Particularly in a densely populated country such as Germany, is it morally defensible to burden future generations with radioactive waste in the hope that scientific progress will find a solution? Many Germans feel uneasy with the gamble that nuclear waste can be stored safely and a solution to permanently dispose of it will at some point be found. The building of temporary nuclear waste facilities, often in small, rural towns, met with profound disquiet that extended far beyond these communities: endangering forests and unspoiled landscapes in the hope that a new technology would at some point come and save the day also felt decidedly un-German.

2. Nuclear energy is expensive and lacks price stability

The advent of nuclear energy was accompanied by promises of abundant energy that would be too cheap to meter. Yet opponents argue that the opposite has happened. While the price of renewable energy has plummeted due to technological advancements, nuclear has become more expensive. Recent studies show that increased safety regulations only explain part of the hike in costs. Other grounds include limited learning effects due to the infrequency of nuclear plant construction, complicated supply chains, and long construction lead times. Cost overruns are commonplace, reaching an average of 241 percent in US nuclear plants built since the 1970s. Subsidies have therefore been essential to keep nuclear afloat. As environmental historian Naomi Oreskes notes, “No country has managed to develop a safe, successful, economically competitive nuclear power industry in a market-based environment.”

As the nuclear fleet ages, these costs will only increase. The German Greens point to the example of France: its aging fleet has been plagued by temporary shutdowns due to planned maintenance, erosion damage, cracks in pipes and safety systems, and cooling water shortages caused by heatwaves and droughts. At the end of 2022, almost half of France’s 56 reactors were offline. These frequent shutdowns have caused France to rely more heavily on its coal-fired plants and to import electricity from Germany – the same fate that critics of the Atomausstieg claim comes with ending reliance on nuclear power. Limited reliability and high upkeep costs have saddled electricity utility EDF, which operates all 56 reactors, with 50 billion dollars in debt. The average cost of extending the lifetime of a French nuclear reactor by ten years is estimated at around 1.7 billion dollars, which seems to suggest an uphill struggle for France’s nuclear industry. An analysis by preeminent physicist and energy writer Amory Lovins shows that France is not a unique case: the average cost of keeping existing nuclear plants in the US running is higher than decommissioning them and installing the equivalent in new renewable capacity.

“No country has managed to develop a safe, successful, economically competitive nuclear power industry in a market-based environment” – Environmental historian Naomi Oreskes

3. The future of energy is clean and democratic – nuclear hinders both

For the German Greens, the transition to renewable energy – the Energiewende – is as much a democratic transition as an ecological one. The decentralized nature of renewable energy production and the possibility of small-scale deployment means that citizens can produce energy themselves, either on their own roofs or via community-owned wind turbines or solar parks. This reduces reliance on large energy providers and gives citizens a stake in their energy futures: they themselves choose the energy sources that will power their towns, and revenue flows directly back to them rather than to large-scale utilities. Nuclear energy is the opposite: extremely high investment costs upfront, long construction lead times, high operational complexity, and the impossibility of small-scale deployment make nuclear citizen energy communities virtually unthinkable. Moreover, the lack of local community involvement in the decision-making surrounding the construction of nuclear power plants was at the root of some of the most prominent anti-nuclear protests in Germany.

Many green-minded advocates for nuclear energy argue that its ability to balance the more intermittent energy generated from renewable sources makes nuclear vital to the green transition. German Greens strongly disagree, arguing that nuclear power actively hinders the deployment of renewables, technologically and economically.

In technical terms, nuclear is too inflexible to complement renewables, effectively capping their maximum output. Toby Couture, director of Berlin-based independent energy consultancy E3 Analytics, explains: “Nuclear is inherently inflexible, [and] wants to operate as much as possible. Solar and wind [also] want to be dispatched all the time, for the simple reason that they have a near-zero marginal cost and outprice everything else on the market. As soon as you reach modest levels of variable renewables in the mix, one of two things starts happening: either solar and wind start pushing out the nuclear, or nuclear starts pushing out the solar and wind. Like oil and water.”

What is actually needed to balance the intermittency of solar and onshore wind is a reliable yet flexible source of supply. Increasingly, this can consist of other renewable sources such as offshore wind turbines and hydroelectricity, as well as more flexible demand through solutions such as smart metering and small-scale energy storage.

Economically, the Greens and nuclear-skeptic policy analysts in the US alike argue that nuclear energy crowds out investment in renewables. The Greens’ political platform on nuclear energy states: “Every euro of taxpayers’ money can only be spent once. From a purely economic point of view, it makes no sense to invest billions in an uncompetitive high-risk technology instead of in the available climate-friendly renewable technologies.” In other words, continuing to spend money on developing new nuclear power plants, extending lifetimes, and storing radioactive waste means less money for renewables and R&D on storage solutions for existing nuclear waste. Anti-nuclear voices argue that an overly broad energy investment strategy causes resources to be diverted away from the most promising technologies, at the cost of jobs and of establishing a front-runner position in renewable energy development.

After the Ausstieg: What’s next?

Now that its nuclear power plants are offline, and in the context of its commitment to phase out coal by 2038 at the latest (and preferably by 2030), Germany must rapidly expedite the buildout of renewable energy. According to a recent analysis by Germany’s federal grid agency, if the roll-out of renewables proceeds as planned –  that is, 80 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2030 – the combined effects of the nuclear exit and a coal phase-out as early as 2030 will not result in electricity shortages, even in the context of heightened demand following the electrification of the heating and transport sectors. To reach this goal, however, the German government will have to pick up the pace: the current share of electricity generation from renewable sources lies at only 48 percent.

Stepping into a nuclear-free future, together

The Atomausstieg is the result of a broad democratic undertaking that set out to protect marginalized and future communities. From a German perspective, ending reliance on nuclear power is a success for democracy, for socioeconomic justice, for the planet, and for the fight against climate change. Nuclear energy, they argue, only hinders the development of renewables and energy democracy while leaving future communities to deal with its waste. The coming years – and Germany’s ability to successfully transition to renewables – will determine whether they were right.