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Will nuclear energy make a comeback in Germany?

January 28, 2024

Germany phased out nuclear energy nearly a year ago. But even with the multi-billion euro problem of how to store radioactive waste, some policians are calling for new nuclear plants to be built.

Protesters' iconic yellow flag with a red smiling sun. It reads "Atomkraft? Nein Danke" (Nuclear power? No thanks!)
Germany began to see widespread demonstrations against nuclear power in the 1970s Image: Tim Brakemeier/dpa/picture-alliance

One year ago, Germany took its three remaining nuclear power plants off the grid, consigning the technology to the history books.

Nuclear fission was once seen as the future. In the early 1960s, politicians and scientists in Germany thought that it would provide an endless supply of electricity, without polluting the air. There was little discussion of the risks of nuclear accidents.

Heinz Smital, an atomic energy expert at Greenpeace, told DW that politicians at the time were euphoric: "From the very beginning, nuclear energy benefited from the fact that countries were interested in the technology, because of nuclear weapons. The energy companies weren't interested in getting into nuclear power. The interest came from the national level." 

Jochen Flasbarth, the current State Secretary in the Ministry of Development, adds: "In the 1960s, Germany was still in 'economic miracle' mode. There was an enormous, almost naïve faith in technology."

At the time, much of the air in Germany was dirty, and the sky was often clouded with smog, especially in the heavily industrialized western Ruhr region, home to much of the country's steel and coal industry. Coal-burning power plants were a significant source of electricity. Nuclear energy was a clear alternative, promising "clean" energy.

Similar thinking took hold in the former East Germany, where the first commercial nuclear power plant went online in 1961. It was a time of confidence in the technology on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In the following years, a total of 37 nuclear reactors went into operation in Germany.

Three Mile Island and Chernobyl

Attitudes changed in the 1970s. Protesters from the growing environmentalist movement demonstrated at the construction sites of new power plants. "The anti-nuclear movement emerged in part as a protest by young people against their largely apolitical parents," says Jochen Flasbarth. "This culminated in big anti-nuclear demonstrations."

In 1979, the Three Mile Island power plant in the US suffered the world's worst nuclear accident at the time, narrowly averting a nuclear disaster. Steffi Lemke of the Green Party, the current Federal Environment Minister, says, "Nuclear euphoria increasingly gave way to the realization that nuclear energy is not something [we can] control."

Then came the Chernobyl accident, in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. On April 26, 1986, a reactor meltdown set a major nuclear accident in motion. The area is still contaminated — and the political fallout continues to this day.

Chernobyl contributed to growing skepticism about nuclear energy in Germany. "The construction of power plants collapsed after that. There were plans for 60 nuclear power plants in Germany alone," said Heinz Smital of Greenpeace.

In 1980, the Green Party emerged from the anti-nuclear movement. Shutting down nuclear reactors was a core part of its program. In 1983, the party entered the Bundestag. In 1998, the Greens became part of a governing coalition for the first time, joining the Social Democrats (SPD). The two parties moved to phase out nuclear energy, against fierce resistance from the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU), who later called for a "phase-out of the phase-out.”

But in 2011, the CDU and CSU changed their position after the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. Chancellor Angela Merkelannounced the end of nuclear energy in Germany.

The last reactor in Germany was finally shut down in March 2023.

Is shutting down nuclear energy a mistake?

Calls for more nuclear plants

Since then, the CDU and CSU have changed their position on nuclear power again. Now many in the party are calling for new reactors to be built. CDU leader Friedrich Merz has said that shutting down the last reactors was a "black day for Germany."

The parties also say that old reactors should be reconnected to the grid. Merz says that the country should restart the last three power plants that were shut down — citing climate protection, as well as rising oil and gas prices.

Those proposals have not found much enthusiasm among German energy companies.

Environment Minister Steffi Lemke is not surprised. "The energy companies made adjustments a long time ago, and they still reject nuclear power in Germany today. Nuclear power is a high-risk technology whose radioactive waste will continue to be toxic for thousands of years, and will be an issue for many generations."

Nuclear power worldwide

There are currently 412 reactors in use worldwide, spread across 32 countries. Even as new reactors are built, older ones are shut down, so the overall number has remained more or less constant for years. Countries such as China, France and the UK have announced new construction. Others want to build small, modern reactors.

According to Greenpeace's Smital, the small reactors are focused on military use, rather than energy production. "One of them is in North Korea. It produces the fuel for the country's whole nuclear weapons program. Economic efficiency is not the point. I see a great danger in these small, often mobile reactors."

Recycling atomic waste?

Storing nuclear waste 

In Germany, the question of where to store dangerous nuclear waste is still unresolved. It's long been stored in temporary facilities near nuclear power plants. But that's not a long-term solution.

The authorities have to look for suitable sites, make selections and commission test drillings. Local communities, who don't want nuclear waste buried anywhere near them, often resist. And figuring out costs and timelines is difficult.

"I can't estimate any of this at the moment," says Dagmar Dehmer of the government's nuclear waste disposal agency. "We have to look at several regions. Drilling costs millions. The evaluation alone costs about five million euros."

The agency estimates that a storage facility could be ready in 2046. Some experts estimate the total costs at around €5.5 billion ($6 bn).

So will nuclear energy come back to life in Germany?

Environment Minister Lemke believes economic viability will decide.  "No power company would build a nuclear plant in Germany, because the costs would be far too high. Nuclear power plants can only be built with massive public and hidden subsidies, including partial exemption from insurance requirements."

For the moment, it seems that nuclear power is indeed history in Germany.

This article was originally written in German.

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau