According to the story from Berlin, on March 11, 2011, Chancellor Angela Merkel was in her office when alarming news started trickling in from Japan. She saw the devastating images of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Fukushimaand did something that she had rarely done in all her years in power.
Having built a reputation for always seeking consensus, she decided on her own to put an end to nuclear energy in Germany. Against the wishes of her party, to the horror of the energy sector and her party's liberal coalition party. Just like that.
At the time, there were 17 nuclear power stations in operation in Germany. Today there are six. The plan is for there to be none by the end of 2022.
Nuclear energy in Germany will soon be a thing of the past and it's hard to imagine that this might change in future. Younger generations might find it difficult to appreciate the heated debates there have been over this technical possibility for producing energy.
Energy transition begins
Just a few months before the Fukushima disaster, Merkel's coalition government had decided to delay a decision to phase out nuclear energy in Germany by extending the lifespan of the country's reactors. So, the chancellor's announcement to put a moratorium on this extension and eventually close down all the reactors in the country marked an abrupt change of direction.
Germany embarked on a major transition toward lower-carbon and more environmentally sound energy. The idea was to develop wind and solar energy and to start phasing out coal as well. Ten years later, the transition is slow, with many feuding stakeholders involved, driven by international promises to be carbon-neutral by 2050.
It is surprising that there has never been a debate to call into question the decision to go ahead with this transition. Other countries reacted very differently to the nuclear disaster in Japan. France, the US and China continue to operate aging nuclear reactors. New reactors are very expensive and hard to impose on populations, at least in democracies.
But Germany has always had a very active anti-nuclear energy movement. For decades, activists campaigned against the building of a repository for nuclear waste in Gorleben in Lower Saxony and the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 also shocked Germany. Fukushima was the final straw. Merkel knew this.
The country is now looking for another site to build a nuclear waste facility. Only in the middle of the century will the radioactive waste from nuclear reactors, which is sometimes stored in the plants themselves, disappear into the earth forever. At least, that's what those in charge hope. The former Asse salt mine where low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste has been stored for years is one of the most impressive and expensive sites of its type in the world.
A nuclear-free Germany
The few advocates of nuclear energy who remain keep saying that an industrial nation such as Germany will not meet the ambitious international climate goals with wind and solar energy alone. They argue that new nuclear reactors will be necessary. However, there is not much to justify such arguments: Nuclear plants are expensive, they require inordinate amounts of water for cooling, and they are monsters in an energy landscape that is becoming increasingly decentralized, particularly in poorer countries.
Anyone who has visited the site of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and experienced the oppressive silence in the death zone around the damaged reactor and in the nearby city of Pripyat in northern Ukraine, once home to 50,000 people, might draw the conclusion that Merkel's decision 10 years ago was right. The German chancellor was acting on political instinct. She never got involved in the heated ideological debates about nuclear energy but simply stated coolly that the stakes and costs of "carrying on” like before were too high.
Merkel understood that the population did not want the nuclear plants. This remains the case 10 years after Fukushima.
This commentary has been translated from German.