Special Issue: The German nuclear exit
Following the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in 2011, the German government took the nation’s eight oldest reactors offline immediately and passed legislation that will close the last nuclear power plant by 2022. This nuclear phase-out had overwhelming political support in Germany. Elsewhere, many saw it as “panic politics,” and the online business magazine Forbes.com went as far as to ask, in a headline, whether the decision was “Insane — or Just Plain Stupid.”
This special issue shows that the nuclear shutdown and an accompanying move toward renewable energy are already yielding measurable economic and environmental benefits. In his overview article Princeton researcher Alexander Glaser observes “Germany’s nuclear phase-out could provide a proof-of-concept, demonstrating the political and technical feasibility of abandoning a controversial high-risk technology. Germany’s nuclear phase-out, successful or not, is likely to become a game changer for nuclear energy worldwide.”
Shortly after the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, Germany’s government started preparing legislation that would close the country’s last nuclear power plant by 2022. But this wasn’t an entirely new development: Germany had been planning to leave nuclear energy behind for decades, and to understand its nuclear phase-out requires a close look at the past. Several projects and events mark the beginnings of the German anti-nuclear power movement: Among them are the huge protests over the Brokdorf reactor, which began in 1976 and led to civil war-like confrontations with police, and the controversy over the Kalkar fast-neutron reactor in the mid-1970s. Because of these and subsequent developments—including the 1986 Chernobyl accident—by the 1990s, no one in German political life seriously entertained the idea of new reactor construction. This tacit policy consensus led to energy forecasts and scenarios that focused on energy efficiency, demand reduction, and renewable energy sources. By the time of the Fukushima accidents, many of these new energy priorities had already begun to be implemented and to show effect. Replacing nuclear power in Germany with other energy sources on an accelerated schedule is likely to come with a price tag, but, at the same time, Germany’s nuclear phase-out could provide a proof-of-concept, demonstrating the political and technical feasibility of abandoning a controversial high-risk technology. Germany’s nuclear phase-out, successful or not, may well become a game changer for nuclear energy worldwide.