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Germany's love-hate relationship with nuclear

Ralf Bosen | Rina Goldenberg
August 7, 2022

Nuclear power has been celebrated, condemned and banned in Germany. Now it might be making a comeback. Here is a timeline.

Proteste vor Atomkraftwerk in Grohnde
Image: Peter Steffen/dpa/picture alliance

It all began with an "egg": Germany's first nuclear reactor went online in October 1957, in Garching, near Munich. Given its shape, it was nicknamed the "atom egg" and belonged to Munich's Technical University. It was a landmark in nuclear research and a symbol of a new beginning after WWII. The research reactor operated until 2000.

nuclear reactor in Garching by Munich
Germany's first nuclear reactor started operating in 1957Image: Heinz-Jürgen Göttert/dpa/picture-alliance

Four years later, in 1961, a nuclear reactor in Kahl am Main, in Bavaria, became the first to produce energy for civilian use and was followed by the construction of similar powerful reactors, Back then, atomic energy was seen as safe and secure. The oil crisis of 1973 gave nuclear energy a further boost.

black and white photo of police using watercannon on protesters
Protests at the Brokdorf nuclear power plant regularly turned violent, starting in the 1970sImage: Klaus Rose/imago images

The pushback begins

Opponents to nuclear energy questioned just how clean nuclear power was, seeing as there was no safe storage site for spent fuel rods. Thousands of protesters clashed with police during a demonstration against the nuclear power plant Brokdorf, in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein.

"Nuclear energy? No thanks," became the rallying cry for German environmentalists. In 1980, a new party was founded in West Germany: the Greens. Their members were a mix of left-wingers, peaceniks, environmentalists, and nuclear opponents. The party made it into the Bundestag, the German parliament, in 1983. 

black and white photo of Gert Bastian, Petra Kelly, Otto Schily, and Marieluise Beck-Oberdorf on March 6, 1983
In 1983, Green Party leaders Gert Bastian, Petra Kelly, Otto Schily, and Marieluise Beck-Oberdorf led a march to the BundestagImage: AP/picture alliance

The dangers of nuclear power soon became reality. On March 28, 1979, the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island, in the US state of Pennsylvania, had a serious accident. On April 26, 1986, a reactor at the plant near Chernobyl, in Soviet Ukraine, exploded, causing the worst nuclear disaster of all time. A radioactive cloud spread across Europe. A watershed moment for Germany.

Germany at the time was divided into communist East Germany (GDR), which received little information on the accident and its fallout. West Germany was gripped by uncertainty. Politicians seemed helpless. No one was prepared for such nuclear fallout, the government lacked guidelines and policies. Crisis teams were formed and then dissolved.

TV documentary about the "liquidators", some 600,000 front line soldiers, firemen and civilians who were deployed over four years to clean up after the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown.
West Germans were worried as they followed the news of the clean-up after the Chernobyl nuclear meltdownImage: Sergei Supinski/AFP/Getty Images

People rushed to buy iodine tablets, and tons of fruit, vegetables, and milk were confiscated and destroyed and disappeared from supermarket shelves. Children were no longer allowed to play in sandboxes, citizens were advised not to go outside in the rain. No measurable health effects have been observed in Germany. But the accident led to the nationwide introduction of radiation levels — and to the creation of a federal environment ministry.

The Bavarian town of Wackersdorf was set to get a reprocessing plant for spent nuclear fuel rods, but riots broke out. A number of protesters and civil service workers were killed. Hundreds more people were injured. Construction was halted in 1989. The German environmental movement claimed its first major victory.

Meanwhile up north, the town of Gorleben, in the state of Lower Saxony, became a symbol of the fight against nuclear waste, which was set to receive the leftover materials until a permanent location was decided on. The first shipments arrived on April 24, 1995. 

Activists chained to railway tracks
Protesters at Gorleben chained themselves to railway tracks to prevent the transport of used fuel rodsImage: BREUEL-BILD/picture alliance

The long goodbye to nuclear power 

Germany's exit from nuclear power has been marked by a back and forth.

The center-left coalition of Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder implemented the phaseout of nuclear energy in an agreement with big energy companies in 2001. All 19 German nuclear power plants were decreed to have an individual lifespan, requiring the last to be shut down by 2021.

In 2010, the center-right government under Chancellor Angela Merkel revoked the deal and decided to extend the effective operating lives of nuclear power plants.

Ulrich Hartmann, S Gerhard Schröder,  Minister Jürgen Trittin signing the document
In 2001 the representative of energy giant e.on, Ulrich Hartmann, SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and Green Party Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin signed the phaseout documentImage: picture alliance

It took a third major accident to lead to policy change in Germany. On March 11, 2011, a radioactive release at the Fukushima plant in Japan, due to an earthquake and tsunami, sent political shockwaves around the world. The impact on Germany was arguably bigger than on Japan.

Chancellor Angela Merkel — a trained physicist — made a sudden shift in policy that took many by surprise. She announced abruptly that Germany's era of nuclear power would come to a close effectively by the end of 2022. On July 30, 2011, the Bundestag voted to shut down all nuclear reactors by then.

 After years of especially intense protest there, the Brokdorf power plant in Schleswig-Holstein went into the history books at the end of 2021. It had been operating for about 35 years. 

protesters in Grohnde
When three power stations were switched off in December 2021, activists saw decades of protest come to a successful endImage: Julian Stratenschulte/dpa/picture alliance

In 2017 the decision was made to start a nationwide search for a geologically suitable safe repository site for high-level radioactive waste in Germany. The deadline was put at 2031.

Another rethink

The war in Ukraine left Germany scrambling to replace Russian energy deliveries. Once politically unshakable, the end date for nuclear power in Germany was then again up for debate. Conservative party leaders were the first to demand nuclear power stations run longer, in order to produce electricity to replace gas.

Friedrich Merz and Markus Söder outside the Isar 2 power plant
In August 2022 the leaders of the conservative opposition parties CDU/CSU expressed their support for nuclear energy at the still operational Isar 2 plant in BavariaImage: Frank Hoermann/SVEN SIMON/picture alliance

In September 2022, Economy Minister Robert Habeck, whose portfolio incorporates energy policy, announced plans to keep two of Germany's three power stations online in the coming winter, repeatedly referring to them as an "emergency reserve." 

This prompted criticism from the conservative opposition, as well as the Greens' business-oriented coalition partner, the Free Democrat (FDP) who want to see a return to nuclear power.

The operator of one of the two reactors said that nuclear power plants can take weeks to switch on or off and cannot be used to plug intermittent gaps in electricity provision. 

Nuclear power making a comeback in Germany?

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