How Germany learned to hate nuclear power

Germany's move to phase out nuclear power isn’t the reaction of a spooked people to Fukushima, but the product of an anti-nuclear consensus rooted in 1970s activism.

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 post-war 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.

Of the many misconceptions that cloud the perception of Germany’s energy stand, 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 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.

See also: Nuclear Europe: A dream unwinding

In terms of popular opinion, over 80% of Germans oppose nuclear energy, a figure that climbed higher in the wake of Fukushima and is comparatively high in Europe. But 90% of Austrians object to the nuclear option, and Austria even has no-nukes enshrined in its constitution. In 2011, 94% 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% of citizens respectively are in favour. (In the US the figure is 70%.)

Another myth is that post World War II 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, its proponents and the left-wing Social Democratic party 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.

The protesting wine-farmers of Wyhl

In fact, it wasn’t until the early 1970s, when protests broke out in Germany’s south-westernmost 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-Lorraine. 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, organised 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 sunlight 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.

Against all odds, the Wyhl coalition forced the utility giant to back down and scrap its plans. The protests, covered by 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.

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 1980s, the anti-nuke movement swelled and linked up on a national level. Its epicentres 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 centres 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.”

Moreover, unlike the 1960s’ student movement, the anti-nuke campaign was broad-based and un-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.”

Defecting nuclear scientists

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 US 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.

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-peddling of it, and the uncertainties of the health risks set the country in panic. 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.

Rise of the Green Party

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 1980s and 1990s, 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 30 years. (The current Merkel government backtracked on this pact, and then reversed in the aftermath of Fukushima.)   

Germany’s Energiewende, or “energy transition” 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 for the sake of it.

See also: Germany’s unlikely green radical

The accidents in Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima galvanised 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, anti-nuclear groups like Campact rely heavily on the internet and social media to put together demonstrations at record speed. X-tausendmal quer specialises in blockades of nuclear waste transports, while another Gorleben-based group, Castor Shottern, takes civil disobedience a step further sabotaging the train tracks along which the 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 an American writer living in Berlin and author of the blog Going renewable with the DGAP (German Council on Foreign relations). His most recent book is Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany.

This article was first published in English by the Heinrich Böll Foundation. It is reproduced here with permission.