Why Germany ditched nuclear before coal – and why it won’t go back

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Atomkraft Nein Danke - Nuclear Power No Thanks. Wikimedia Image Flickr: Atomkraft? Nein Danke!
Author	Bündnis 90/Die Grünen Nordrhein-Westfalen licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
Author Bündnis 90/Die Grünen Nordrhein-Westfalen licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Why Germany ditched nuclear before coal – and why it won’t go back

Trevelyan Wing, University of Cambridge

One year ago, Germany took its last three nuclear power stations offline. When it comes to energy, few events have baffled outsiders more.

In the face of climate change, calls to expedite the transition away from fossil fuels, and an energy crisis precipitated by Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Berlin’s move to quit nuclear before carbon-intensive energy sources like coal has attracted significant criticism. (Greta Thunberg prominently labelled it “a mistake”.)

This decision can only be understood in the context of post-war socio-political developments in Germany, where anti-nuclearism predated the public climate discourse.

From a 1971 West German bestseller evocatively titled Peaceably into Catastrophe: A Documentation of Nuclear Power Plants, to huge protests of hundreds of thousands – including the largest-ever demonstration seen in the West German capital Bonn – the anti-nuclear movement attracted national attention and widespread sympathy. It became a major political force well before even the Chernobyl disaster of 1986.

Its motivations included: a distrust of technocracy; ecological, environmental and safety fears; suspicions that nuclear energy could engender nuclear proliferation; and general opposition to concentrated power (especially after its extreme consolidation under the Nazi dictatorship).

Instead, activists championed what they regarded as safer, greener, and more accessible renewable alternatives like solar and wind, embracing their promise of greater self-sufficiency, community participation, and citizen empowerment (“energy democracy”).

This support for renewables was less about CO₂ and more aimed at resetting power relations (through decentralised, bottom-up generation rather than top-down production and distribution), protecting local ecosystems, and promoting peace in the context of the cold war.

Germany’s Energiewende

The contrast here with Thunberg’s latter-day Fridays for Future movement and its “listen to the experts” slogan is striking. The older activist generation deliberately rejected the mainstream expertise of the time, which then regarded centralised nuclear power as the future and mass deployment of distributed renewables as a pipe dream.

This earlier movement was instrumental in creating Germany’s Green Party – today the world’s most influential – which emerged in 1980 and first entered national government from 1998 to 2005 as junior partner to the Social Democrats. This “red-green” coalition banned new reactors, announced a shutdown of existing ones by 2022, and passed a raft of legislation supporting renewable energy.

That, in turn, turbocharged the national deployment of renewables, which ballooned from 6.3% of gross domestic electricity consumption in 2000 to 51.8% in 2023.

These figures are all the more remarkable given the contributions of ordinary citizens. In 2019, they owned fully 40.4% (and over 50% in the early 2010s) of Germany’s total installed renewable power generation capacity, whether through community wind energy cooperatives, farm-based biogas installations, or household rooftop solar.

Most other countries’ more recent energy transitions have been attempts to achieve net-zero targets using whatever low-carbon technologies are available. Germany’s now-famous “Energiewende” (translated as “energy transition” or even “energy revolution”), however, has from its earlier inception sought to shift away from both carbon-intensive as well as nuclear energy to predominantly renewable alternatives.

Indeed, the very book credited with coining the term Energiewende in 1980 was, significantly, titled Energie-Wende: Growth and Prosperity Without Oil and Uranium and published by a think tank founded by anti-nuclear activists.

Consecutive German governments have, over the past two and a half decades, more or less hewed to this line. Angela Merkel’s pro-nuclear second cabinet (2009-13) was an initial exception.

That lasted until the 2011 Fukushima disaster, after which mass protests of 250,000 and a shock state election loss to the Greens forced that administration, too, to revert to the 2022 phaseout plan. Small wonder that so many politicians today are reluctant to reopen that particular Pandora’s box.

Another ongoing political headache is where to store the country’s nuclear waste, an issue Germany has never managed to solve. No community has consented to host such a facility, and those designated for this purpose have seen large-scale protests.

Instead, radioactive waste has been stored in temporary facilities close to existing reactors – no long-term solution.

Nuclear remains unpopular

National polls underscore the Teutonic aversion to nuclear. Even in 2022, at the height of the recent energy crisis, a survey found that 52% opposed constructing new reactors, though 78% supported a temporary extension of existing plants until summer 2023. The three-way Social Democratic-Green-Liberal coalition government ultimately compromised on mid-April 2023.

Today, 51.6% of Germans believe this was premature. However, a further deferral was deemed politically unfeasible given the trenchant anti-nuclearism of the Greens and sizeable cross sections of the population.

Despite some public protestations to the contrary (the main opposition CDU party declared in January that Germany “cannot do without the nuclear power option at present”), in private few political leaders think the country will, or even realistically can, reverse course.

As an industry insider told me, talk of reintroducing nuclear to Germany is “delusional” because investors were “burnt … too many times” in the past and now “would rather put their money into safer investments”. Moreover, “it would take decades to build new [nuclear] power stations” and electricity is no longer the sector of concern, given the rapid buildout of renewables, with attention having shifted to heating and transport.

Chart of power production in Germany by source
German nuclear power (purple) has largely been replaced by renewables (yellow), not coal (black and brown).
Clean Energy Wire, CC BY-SA

Predictions that the nuclear exit would leave Germany forced to use more coal and facing rising prices and supply problems, meanwhile, have not transpired. In March 2023 – the month before the phaseout – the distribution of German electricity generation was 53% renewable, 25% coal, 17% gas, and 5% nuclear. In March 2024, it was 60% renewable, 24% coal, and 16% gas.

Overall, the past year has seen record renewable power production nationwide, a 60-year low in coal use, sizeable emissions cuts, and decreasing energy prices.

The country’s energy sector, it seems, has already moved on. In the words of one industry observer: “Once you switch off these nuclear power stations, they’re out.” And there’s no easy way back.

For better or worse, this technology – in its present form at least – is dead in the water here. For many Germans, it will not be missed.The Conversation

Trevelyan Wing, Fellow of the Cambridge Centre for Geopolitics and Centre Researcher at the Cambridge Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance (CEENRG), University of Cambridge

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Continue ReadingWhy Germany ditched nuclear before coal – and why it won’t go back

Green Groups Protest ‘Nuclear Fairy Tale’ in Brussels

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Original article by OLIVIA ROSANE republished from Common Dreams under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

Greenpeace activists disrupt a pro-nuclear summit in Brussels on March 21, 2024.  (Photo: Guillaume Chauvin/Greenpeace

“All the evidence shows that nuclear power is too slow to build, too expensive, and it remains highly polluting and dangerous,” one activist said.

An international coalition of environmental groups dropped banners and blockaded roads to protest the International Nuclear Energy Summit in Brussels on Thursday.

While the summit, hosted by the Belgian government and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), pushes nuclear energy as a replacement for fossil fuels, more than 600 climate action groups launched a declaration calling nuclear power plants a “distraction which slows down the energy transition.”

“We are in a climate emergency, so time is precious, and the governments here today are wasting it with nuclear energy fairy tales,” Greenpeace E.U. senior campaigner Lorelei Limousin said in a statement. “All the evidence shows that nuclear power is too slow to build, too expensive, and it remains highly polluting and dangerous.”

“The nuclear lobby camouflages itself beneath a climate-friendly facade, hoping to divert massive sums of money away from real climate solutions, at the expense of people and the planet.”

At the United Nations COP28 climate conference in the United Arab Emirates last year, more than 20 countries pledged to triple nuclear energy capacity by 2050. However, Greenpeace France calculated that achieving this would mean finishing 70 reactors each year between 2040 and 2050. This would be an unprecedented buildout in defiance of current trends: Between 2020 and 2023, 21 reactors were completed while 24 were shut down worldwide.

In the European Union specifically, many countries turned away from nuclear after 2011 in response to the Fukushima accident in Japan, according to Reuters. Germany shuttered its last three reactors for good in April 2023 following a successful anti-nuclear campaign there. In general, the nuclear share of the E.U. power mix dropped from 32.8% in 2000 to 22.8% in 2023, Greenpeace said.

Activists argue that nuclear still poses all the dangers the anti-nuclear movement has been warning about for decades and also cannot be ramped up quickly enough to prevent escalating climate extremes.

To reinforce this message, members of Greenpeace France blockaded the main roads to the Brussels summit using cars and bicycles. They also lit pink flares and threw pink powder as a motorcade of officials en route to the summit approached. The action succeeded in delaying the arrival of several delegations, Greenpeace E.U. said.

Other demonstrators dropped banners from the summit site at Brussels Expo reading, “Nuclear Fairy Tale,” while a group representing the 600 declaration signatories protested in front of an inflatable bouncy castle holding up a sign reading, “Nuclear fairy tales = climate crisis.”

The declaration was drafted by Climate Action Network Europe and signed by groups from at least 56 different countries and territories including Climate Action Network Canada, the David Suzuki Foundation, the Sierra Club, Food and Water Watch, CodePink, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, and several 350.org, Fridays for Future, and Friends of the Earth affiliates.

“The nuclear lobby camouflages itself beneath a climate-friendly facade, hoping to divert massive sums of money away from real climate solutions, at the expense of people and the planet,” the declaration reads.

The signatories pointed out that, while the world must dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 in order to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels, it would take longer than this for any new nuclear plant to come online.

At the same time, it costs significantly more money to increase nuclear capacity than renewable options like wind and solar, they stressed. A new reactor requires almost four times the funds of a new wind power installation.

“Governments need to invest in proven climate solutions, such as home insulation, public transport, and renewable energy, rather than expensive experiments, like small modular reactors, which have no guarantees of actually delivering,” the declaration says.

It also points to safety risks across the nuclear lifecycle, from uranium mining to waste storage. And it adds that those dangers would only increase as temperatures rise.

“The climate crisis also increases the risks involved in nuclear power, as increased heatwaves, droughts, storms, and flooding all pose significant threats to the plants themselves and to the systems that aim to prevent nuclear accidents,” the signatories argued.

Instead, the declaration proposes that governments focus on achieving 100% renewable energy while also improving efficiency.

“What we demand is a just transition toward a safe, renewable, and affordable energy system that secures jobs and protects life on our planet,” the declaration concludes.

Original article by OLIVIA ROSANE republished from Common Dreams under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

Continue ReadingGreen Groups Protest ‘Nuclear Fairy Tale’ in Brussels

Decades after the US buried nuclear waste abroad, climate change could unearth it

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US military officers watch nuclear waste being dumped on Runit Island in the Marshall Islands.COURTESY OF DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE

A new report says melting ice sheets and rising seas could disturb waste from U.S. nuclear projects in Greenland and the Marshall Islands.

Ariana Tibon was in college at the University of Hawaiʻi in 2017 when she saw the photo online: a black-and-white picture of a man holding a baby. The caption said: “Nelson Anjain getting his baby monitored on March 2, 1954, by an AEC RadSafe team member on Rongelap two days after ʻBravo.’” 

Tibon had never seen the man before. But she recognized the name as her great-grandfather’s. At the time, he was living on Rongelap in the Marshall Islands when the U.S. conducted Castle Bravo, the largest of 67 nuclear weapon tests there during the Cold War. The tests displaced and sickened Indigenous people, poisoned fish, upended traditional food practices, and caused cancers and other negative health repercussions that continue to reverberate today. 

A federal report by the Government Accountability Office published last month examines what’s left of that nuclear contamination, not only in the Pacific but also in Greenland and Spain. The authors conclude that climate change could disturb nuclear waste left in Greenland and the Marshall Islands. “Rising sea levels could spread contamination in RMI, and conflicting risk assessments cause residents to distrust radiological information from the U.S. Department of Energy,” the report says. 


Continue ReadingDecades after the US buried nuclear waste abroad, climate change could unearth it

Spending watchdog launches investigation into Sellafield

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Sellafield is Europe’s most toxic nuclear site. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Britain’s public spending watchdog has launched an investigation into risks and costs at Sellafield, the UK’s biggest nuclear waste dump.

The National Audit Office (NAO), which scrutinises the use of public funds, has announced it will examine whether the Cumbria site is managing and prioritising the risks and hazards of the site effectively as well as deploying resources appropriately and continuing to improve its project management.

The findings of its investigation are expected to be published this autumn.

Sellafield is Europe’s most toxic nuclear site and also one of the UK’s most expensive infrastructure projects, with the NAO estimating it could cost £84bn to maintain the site into the next century.

Last year, Nuclear Leaks, a Guardian investigation into activities at Sellafield revealed problems with cybersecurity, a radioactive leak and a “toxic” workplace culture at the waste dump.

Predictions of the ultimate bill for the site, which holds about 85% of the UK’s nuclear waste, vary. It cost £2.5bn to run the site last year, and the government estimates it could ultimately take £263bn to manage the country’s ageing nuclear sites, of which Sellafield accounts for the largest portion.



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Sellafield nuclear site hacked

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A seabird staying warm in one of Sellafield nuclear dump’s open-air ponds.


The UK’s most hazardous nuclear site, Sellafield, has been hacked into by cyber groups … the Guardian can reveal.

The astonishing disclosure and its potential effects have been consistently covered up by senior staff at the vast nuclear waste and decommissioning site, the investigation has found.

The Guardian has discovered that the authorities do not know exactly when the IT systems were first compromised. But sources said breaches were first detected as far back as 2015, when experts realised sleeper malware – software that can lurk and be used to spy or attack systems – had been embedded in Sellafield’s computer networks.

The full extent of any data loss and any ongoing risks to systems was made harder to quantify by Sellafield’s failure to alert nuclear regulators for several years, sources said.

The revelations have emerged in Nuclear Leaks, a year-long Guardian investigation into cyber hacking, radioactive contamination and toxic workplace culture at Sellafield.

The site has the largest store of plutonium on the planet and is a sprawling rubbish dump for nuclear waste from weapons programmes and decades of atomic power generation.

In one highly embarrassing incident last July, login details and passwords for secure IT systems were inadvertently broadcast on national TV by the BBC One nature series Countryfileafter crews were invited into the secure site for a piece on rural communities and the nuclear industry.


Shitty open-air pond at Sellafield nuclear waste dump containing spent nuclear fuel rods. Notice the seabird staying warm.


Sellafield: ‘bottomless pit of hell, money and despair’ at Europe’s most toxic nuclear site

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