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Atomic dermany

September 10, 2009

Half a century has passed since Germany began exploring nuclear energy. DW-WORLD takes a look at the history of atomic power and protests against its use in the country.

Germany's first nuclear reactor: The Atomic Egg in Garching
Germany's first nuclear reactor: the Atomic Egg in GarchingImage: picture-alliance/dpa


The first nuclear research reactor, the so-called Atomic Egg, begins operating in the town of Garching near Munich.


Germany's Atomic Energy Act takes effect. The law is meant to promote nuclear energy.


Otto Hahn with atom symbols
Otto HahnImage: AP

Germany's first nuclear power plant goes online in Karlstein am Main, just east of Frankfurt. The town still includes a symbol of an atom in its seal.


The ore cargo ship "Otto Hahn," which uses nuclear power and is named after the German discoverer of nuclear fission, begins work as a research ship. In 1979, it is retrofitted to run on diesel.


The oil crisis becomes a major boost for nuclear power in Germany and leads to the construction of several new nuclear power plants.

German nuclear power plants and their remaining lifespans
German nuclear power plants and their remaining lifespansImage: APGB/DW


The first major anti-nuclear protests with about 30,000 demonstrators take place in Germany against construction of a new plant in Wyhl am Kaiserstuhl on the French border in southwestern Germany. The plant is never built and the land eventually becomes a nature preserve in 1995.


The meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (USA) on March 29, 1979, causes the anti-nuclear movement in Germany to grow.

Early 1980s

Plans to build a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in the Bavarian town of Wackersdorf lead to major protests. The plans are abandoned in 1988. It still isn't clear whether protests or pragmatic cost calculations by the operating company led to the decision.


Thousands protest against the Brokdorf nuclear plant
Thousands protest against the Brokdorf nuclear plantImage: AP

On Feb. 28, Germany's largest anti-nuclear demonstration takes place against construction of the Brokdorf nuclear plant on the North Sea coast west of Hamburg. Some 100,000 people face off with 10,000 police officers. The plant begins operations in October 1986. It is scheduled to go offline in 2018.


The Chernobyl nuclear power plant catastrophe on April 26 leads to a major shift in attitudes regarding nuclear power in Germany. The environment ministry is founded as a result.


Then Environment Minister Juergen Trittin unveils a "nuclear power: off" poster on the ministry's wall in 2005
Then Environment Minister Juergen Trittin unveils a "nuclear power: off" poster on the ministry's wall in 2005Image: dpa - Bildfunk

The "Act on the structured phase-out of the utilization of nuclear energy for the commercial generation of electricity" takes effect -- 16 years to the day after Chernobyl and following a drawn-out debate among political parties as well as lengthy negotiations with nuclear power plant operators. It calls for the shut-down of all German nuclear plants by 2021. The Stade nuclear plant is the first one to go offline in November 2003, followed by the Obrigheim plant in 2005. The Biblis A plant is scheduled to be shut down this year.


A Castor transport on Nov. 21, 2006
A Castor transport in November 2006Image: AP

Nuclear waste transports in so-called Castor containers continue to trigger protests along the route.


Amid fears that Russian energy supplies to western Europe might not be reliable, conservative politicians, including Chancellor Angela Merkel and Economics Minister Michael Glos, continue to question the decision to phase out nuclear power in Germany.

In the summer, two nuclear power plants near Hamburg shut down: after a fire breaks out at Kruemmel and a short-circuit occurs at Brunsbuettel. But operators say there is no trace of increased radioactivity. Still, the technical mishaps rekindle the debate over nuclear safety. Brunsbuettel shuts down three times in three weeks due to technical mishaps.

Firefighters and engines at the Kruemmel nuclear power plant
Kruemmel is shut down after a fire in a transformerImage: AP

Growing criticism of operator Vattenfall Europe's handling of the problems causes the CEO to resign and government leaders begin mulling the future of atomic energy.


In June, a German nuclear power station at Philippsburg near Karlsruhe is taken offline due to an internal leak, but there is no evidence of any release of radioactivity.

In July, Chancellor Angela Merkel rejects her Social Democratic coalition partners' proposal to include a ban on the building of new plants in the constitution in return for their agreement to prolong the operation of existing ones. Merkel also says she does not believe that Germany could completely do without nuclear power and also reach its carbon dioxide emission targets.

In September, Germany's Federal Office for Radioactive Protection is slated to take over the ailing Asse nuclear storage facility in the state of Lower Saxony after strong criticism of the operator for failing to alert the government to violations at the location. Asse's operators are slammed for depositing highly radioactive waste for decades at the decrepit site.

Protestors block the railway track as they protest against the transport of nuclear waste aboard "Castor" containers to the interim storage facility in Gorleben
One of the more peaceful protests at GorlebenImage: AP

In November, thousands of protestors hold up a truck convoy carrying 11 containers of nuclear waste from France to the Gorleben storage site in Lower Saxony; some of the protestors turn violent. Demonstrations of this sort occur frequently along routes to the Gorleben location.


In July, one of Germany's most modern nuclear power stations - the Emsland reactor in the northwest - undergoes an automatic shutdown due to a technical fault. Earlier in the month, the Kruemmel reactor near Hamburg, also shuts down - shortly after reopening following two years of repairs. The Environment Ministry announces that electrical systems at nuclear power plants nationwide must be checked.

Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl is front of a CDU party sign
Former Chancellor Kohl's government has been accused of tampering data on nuclear storage risksImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

These incidents reignite the debate on nuclear power in the run-up to the national parliamentary election on Sept. 27.

In early September, evidence surfaces implying the administration of conservative Chancellor Helmut Kohl tampered with a report to play down the risks of nuclear waste storage at the Gorleben site during the 1980s.

Compiled by DW staff (win/als)
Editor. Nancy Isenson