Why the Exit from Nuclear Energy in Germany?

4099 /Mutlangen, Protest gegen Pershing II-Atomraketen

(Protests at one of the US army bases in Germany where nuclear weapons were stored. Source)

For a while now I am intrigued with a simple question: of all (relatively) large countries, Germany is the only which seems to take exiting nuclear energy seriously. Why is this the case. This is not my field, but I have a suspicion.

When I ask learned colleagues I get three main explanations. The first is the notorious German Angst. We seek insurance even for choosing the right insurance, so perhaps we are just more worried about nuclear energy than say the French. This raises the question why we built the power plants in the first place. Maybe we needed to learn about the negative consequences of nuclear energy such as Chernobyl or Fukushima, but still, this answer leaves much to ask for.

Another answer comes from the relative strength of energy providers. The political economy story boils down to saying that in the German energy mix, traditionally, coal (both black and brown) played a much stronger role, and nuclear was in a weaker position. But this, if anything, makes matters worse for the nuclear exit, because it means that exiting nuclear energy comes with higher CO2 emissions and clashes with climate change considerations. (yes, yes, renewables, but still.)

The third one rests on the relative strength the German Green party. Indeed political mobilization is an important mechanism how issues are raised to prominence and finally reach the highest level of decision making. But again. This answer leaves much to be desired. For starters, it is not so obvious that German Greens did so much better. The table below shows averages over 15 years (1999-2014) of the Chapel Hill Expert Survey. German Greens are doing fine, but not extraordinarily fine. Moreover, if it is this party link, where does the strength come from, ultimately?


My feeling is that Germany needs to be seen in a unique historical and geographic context that conflated two important dimensions of nuclear energy: peaceful and military use. The unique circumstances were that Germany itself did not have any nuclear weapons, but a lot of nuclear arms were stationed on German soil. This triggered broad resistance, arguably much broader than in countries like France or the UK were the weapons were national ones. Hence, the German movement, much more than in most other countries, was always a mixture between peace and Anti-AKW (anti nuclear power plants), a constellation which is hard to find in other places. Perhaps Japan would be similar, but Japan had nothing as close to a political default line as the Berlin Wall.

If this argument is true, the legacy of US nuclear arms is really long and tipped the balance against the supporters of nuclear power plants. Events such as Fukushima were merely the trigger.


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