Why Germans Are So Skeptical About Nuclear Energy

By Paul Hockenos

The fact that Germany, in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, redoubled its efforts to phase out nuclear energy has nothing to do with hysteria or postwar angst. On the contrary, a majority of Germans, including much of the political class, has been unconvinced of its merits since the early 1980s; the source of this anti-atom consensus lies not in emotional populism but rather in the persuasive, fact-based arguments of a powerful, grassroots social movement that has long included nuclear physicists and other bona fide experts.

During this four decade long campaign, start-up think tanks, academic scholars, and professionals with nuclear industry experience, among others, were instrumental in convincing most Germans of three main points: nuclear energy is a high-risk technology; renewable energies are viable; and there is no fail-safe way to dispose of radioactive waste.

Of the many misconceptions that cloud the perception of Germany’s energy stands, one is that Germany is somehow on its own in Europe, on the fringe of the continent’s mainstream. In fact, Ireland, Austria, and Norway had dismissed the nuclear option years ago. Greece, Portugal, Italy, and Denmark don’t and will never have atomic power plants. Like Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Belgium are in the process of phasing out nuclear power. Spain has banned the construction of new reactors.

In terms of popular opinion, over 80 percent of Germans oppose nuclear energy, a figure that climbed higher in the wake of Fukushima and is comparatively high in Europe. But 90 percent of Austrians object to the nuclear option, and Austria even has no-nukes enshrined in its constitution. In 2011, 94 percent of Italians voted against nuclear power in a popular referendum. And then, of course, there are the pro-nuclear nations, led by France and the Czech Republic, where 68 and 67 percent of its citizens, respectively, are in favor of it. (In the U.S. the figure is 70 percent.) Poland is currently initiating a nuclear program.

Rather, what makes Germany stand out among the nuclear skeptical nations is, firstly, that it is an industrial heavy weight of global renown. Germany’s isn’t a mild-mannered service-based economy, but one based on unusually energy-intensive industries: automobiles, heavy machinery, chemicals, engineering, and electrical appliances. Secondly, Germany has plainly stated that it will kick the nuclear habit while meeting EU climate goals and weaning itself off fossil fuels. Germany’s ambition, complete with a strategy to do so, is to switch completely to renewables after 2050 without jeopardizing its industry. This project, called the Energiewende, or “energy transition,” is what makes Germany unique–and has the world watching it.


Source: Federal Environmental Agency, 2011

Another myth is that postwar Germany was viscerally anti-nuclear from its earliest days, an allergic reaction to the horrors of the war and Hiroshima. While there was a strong anti-nuclear-weapons peace movement in the 1950s Federal Republic, its proponents and the left-wing Social Democrats were thoroughly enthusiastic about the non-military potential of nuclear science. The new technology, they thought, could provide the country with a clean, risk-free new energy source that might one day even make energy bills obsolete. (Soviet-style East Germany was consistently pro-nuclear until its demise.)       In fact, it wasn’t until the early 1970s when protests broke out in Germany’s southwestern-most corner that Germans began looking twice at the nuclear power facilities and waste repositories in their backyards. The anti-nuclear energy movement was born in the wine-growing region of the Black Forest abutting the borders of Switzerland and France’s Alsace-Loraine. There, in the tiny hamlet of Wyhl, the area’s staunchly conservative farmers, joined by left-wing activists from the nearby university city of Freiburg, as well as concerned French and Swiss citizens, organized to stop the construction of a planned reactor.

The Wyhl coalition bore many of the characteristics that would define the movement for years to follow: It was locally led, politically diverse, and committed to non-violent civil disobedience. Initially, the farmers’ objection was that the steam clouds from the reactor’s cooling towers would block the sun light in their vineyards, not that radioactivity as such was a hazard. This changed as the community learned more about the health effects of low-level radiation, such as that produced by nuclear power plants on pregnant women in their vicinity.

Against all odds, the Wyhl coalition forced the utility giant to back down and scrap its plans. The protests, covered in the national media, captured the country’s imagination. If the wine farmers of the Black Forest could do it, so could others concluded, Germans living near nuclear installations. American activists too were influenced by the Wyhl protests, most importantly those from the Clamshell Alliance which conducted non-violent demonstrations against nuclear power in New England in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Germany’s anti-nuclear energy movement would prove one of the most enduring and successful mass movements in contemporary Europe; it would change the way Germans thought about the atom as an energy source, give birth to a political party committed to its goals, and, ultimately, lay the groundwork for Germany’s decision to embrace a future based on clean, renewable energy. Its emblem was a smiling sun with the simple slogan ”Atomkraft, Nein Danke!” (Nuclear Energy? No, thank you!)  

In the 1970s and 80s, the anti-nuke movement swelled and linked up on a national level. Its epicenters were the localities where reactors, planned reactors, breeder reactors, waste processing plants, and waste dumps were located, places with names like Brokdorf, Kalkar, Wackersdorf, Grohnde, and Gorleben. “The movement created a highly networked infrastructure of NGOs, newspapers, training centers, and expertise,” explains Dieter Rucht— Germany’s foremost expert on social movements, “These grassroots structures and in particular the regular protests in Gorleben [against the waste dump] enabled the movement to persevere for so long, until today.” Rucht notes that even during periods when the movement flagged, annual national conference kept the network vibrant.        

Moreover, unlike the 1960s’ student movement, the anti-nuke campaign was broad-based and non-ideological – and has remained so. The Wyhl occupation was one of the first times that Germany’s urban leftists were able to find common ground with people beyond their own ranks. “At first, the wine growers looked at me like I was from another planet,” explains Eva Quistorp, a Berlin-based feminist and peace activist who was at Wyhl. “But we learned from one another.” “This diversity was—and still is—so important because it made it impossible for politicians and the energy lobbies to label the protesters as crazy, leftwing agitators,” explains Rucht. “They had to be taken seriously because they were the conservatives’ own constituency, upstanding folk with jobs and families who voted Christian Democrat.”

A decisive facet of the German experience – one that distinguishes it from France – was the presence of experts in its ranks, including former nuclear industry scientists who had broken with their companies. One key figure was the German nuclear engineer Klaus Traube who had held top managerial positions in both West German and U.S. nuclear installations. After witnessing an accident in a German reactor caused by a minor human error, he became dubious of nuclear power’s safety. The Three Mile Island accident in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1979 transformed him into a full-fledged opponent. Traube provided the movement and his party, the Social Democrats, with invaluable technological and economic explanations of the dangers of nuclear power. When the Chernobyl reactor melted down in 1986, the entire nation looked to Traube to explain what had happened and how it would affect them.

“Experts like Traube made the German movement evidence-based, not simply emotional appeals or moralistic preaching,” explains German historian Erhard Stölting from the University of Potsdam. They took on the nuclear lobby at the highest technical level, he says. The defection of experts like Traube “was possible in Germany, and not in France,” explains Stölting, “because the Federal Republic’s structures were far more decentralized than those in France.” Also, in Germany, alternative think tanks had emerged, like the Freiburg-based Öko-Institut, where renegade scientists could find employment outside of the industry. “This is an option that French nuclear scientists simply didn’t have,” explains Stölting, who attributes much of the stark difference of German and French attitudes to the role of these movement-allied experts.

Traube authored a dozen books about nuclear energy that were widely read in movement circles. But he was not alone. Holger Strohm’s Friedlich in die Katastrophe: Eine Dokumentation über Atomkraftwerke (Heading Peacefully to Catastrophe: A Documentation of Nuclear Power Plants) was a detailed, technical, 1300-page study on civilian nuclear facilities that sold 640,000 copies in West Germany. The Öko-Institut published study after study, and served as a model for other critically minded think tanks that would come to life in the 1980s.  Its very first report was entitled “Die Energiewende,” the same term the Merkel government uses today to describe its transition to renewable energies. The movement even had an allied publishing house, Dreisam Verlag, also in Freiburg.

“It wasn’t just that professional experts were part of the movement., ” explains Otfried Nassauer, director of the Berlin Institute for Transatlantic Security. “Activists took it upon themselves to develop their own expertise on nuclear technology. They weren’t scientists but they learned enough to engage critically with the nuclear lobby and make the arguments against nuclear power themselves.”

Moreover, these experts and institutions proved to have remarkable staying power. In the 1990s, Traube, for example, went on to head up the influential Institute for Energy Economics and Energy Policy at the University of Bremen, one of the many university-based scientific institutes that contributed hands-on studies for planning the transition to renewable energies. The Öko-Institut still exists today, a respected think tank with 140 staff members (90 of whom are scientists) and offices in three cities.

Then, of course, came Chernobyl. In April 1986 the reactors in western Ukraine melted down sending a radioactive cloud across Central Europe. The Soviets’ failure to announce the accident, the German government’s initial soft-pedaling of it, and the uncertainties of the health risks set the country in panic. The Germans were directly affected, unlike their neighbor France. As it happened, the high levels of radioactive rain tapered off around the French-German border. The then-communist countries of Central Europe were kept in the dark by their leaderships. But West Germans were glued to their television sets, hungry for news, tips to deal with contamination, and the weather forecasts. Playgrounds were closed, fresh vegetables destroyed, and pregnant women advised to stay indoors. There is not an adult (former West) German who doesn’t remember those dark days in spring 1986.

The Germans also had an anti-nuke party as of 1980, namely the Greens, who carried the concerns of the mass movement into the national parliament, the Bundestag. No other country in the world has had a force so determined and influential in taking on the powerful atomic energy lobby. The Greens emerged out of the New Social Movements of the 1970s, as an alternative to the Social Democrats who were split on the issue of nuclear power. The environmental party entered regional legislatures during the 80s and 90s, and then finally shared in national power in the 1998-2005 “red-green” government. Pushed by the Greens, the government negotiated a compromise with the energy companies to phase out nuclear power over thirty years. (The current Merkel government backtracked on this pact, and then revered itself in the aftermath of Fukushima.)   

Germany’s Energiewende isn’t the reaction of a spooked people to Fukushima. Indeed, it has arguably been part of Berlin’s energy agenda since the early 1990s. Now every political party says it’s on board. Opinion polls show Germans convinced of a future based on renewables, and even willing to pay slightly higher energy bills to pay for it.

The accidents in Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima galvanized public opinion. But the grassroots campaign begun in Wyhl kept up the pressure. Its ability to shun sectarian politics and constantly reinvent itself kept it vital. Today, groups like Campact, a nationwide anti-nuke group, relies heavily on the Internet and social media. Campact has over 500,000-address e-mail list that enables it to put together demonstrations at record speed. It is also a platform for people to be engaged via the internet, through mass petitions, email campaigns, and blogs. The nationwide group Ausgestrahlt focuses on supporting the network of smaller, local groups across the country with campaigning materials and ideas, enabling them with more clout.  X-tausendmal quer specializes in blockades of nuclear waste transports, while another Gorleben-based group, Castor Shottern, takes civil disobedience a step further by sabotaging the train tracks along which nuclear waste transports run.

And today there’s even another new constituency: the green-collar workers of the renewable energy industry. They’re conspicuous at demonstrations in their work clothes and badges, yet not out of place. The almost 400,000 clean energy jobs in Germany, many in the down-trodden eastern states, and the promise of more is another sound argument in the quiver of Energiewende proponents.



Paul Hockenos is a New York and Berlin-based journalist. He is editor of Internationale Politik-Global Edition and senior fellow of the World Policy Institute. He blogs at Going Renewable.

[Photo provided by S. Kuelcue]




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