Nuclear powerHow Fukushima Triggered Germany's Nuclear Phaseout

By Christoph Hasselbach

Published 11 March 2021

The Fukushima disaster shook the belief in safe nuclear power to its core. For Germany, it marked a historic turning point for environmentalism.

On March 11, 2011, one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded triggered a tsunami off Japan’s Pacific coast. The gigantic waves rolled over the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, knocking out the cooling system and causing a meltdown in three of its six reactors. It was the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.

But the important difference between the two disasters is Japan’s reputation as a high-tech country with high security standards. That difference is one that has made even avid supporters of nuclear energy second-guess themselves.

They included Angela Merkel, a trained physicist who believed in the peaceful use of nuclear energy. She had even attacked the center-left coalition government of her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, for deciding to phase out atomic power.

I will always consider it absurd to shut down technologically safe nuclear power plants that don’t emit CO2,” she said in 2006.

But Fukushima changed her mind: Three days after the disaster, a subdued Merkel announced that Germany would be suspending its recently approved extension of the operating lives of nuclear power plants following the “unimaginable catastrophe” in Japan.

Political Fallout in Germany
In only a matter of weeks, the political momentum unleashed by Fukushima became palpable. Merkel’s close ally and a big supporter of atomic energy, Stefan Mappus, lost as the incumbent state premier in Baden-Württemberg to Winfried Kretschmann of the Green party. It was a political first for the anti-nuclear party, and in a conservative state, no less.

Three months later, the German parliament voted to phase out atomic energy by the end of 2022. But energy companies sued the government for damages. It took nearly 10 more years for both sides to agree to damages worth €2.4 billion ($2.86 billion,) with taxpayers footing the bill for Merkel’s phaseout detour.

Climate-Friendly Nuclear Power?
A number of governments, such as those of France, the UK, and the United States, consider nuclear energy, with its low CO2 emissions, as a tool in slowing climate change. And the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) agrees.

But the idea that nuclear energy can help the climate is an “illusion,” according to Jochen Flasbarth, deputy minister of Germany’s Environment Ministry. For one, nuclear only makes up roughly 5% of the world’s energy supply.

In truth, it’s not an energy supply that can be sustained in the future. These countries are faced with losing a connection to a truly sustainable renewable energy sector,” he said.