This article mentions the difficulties posed by Germany's decision to phase out nuclear energy usage:

Germany's decision to phase out nuclear power means that it must replace the energy source with climate-harmful coal and gas

On the other hand, Germany's dependence on Russian gas seems to be quite high (>30%).

(...) in 2015 Germany imported 35% of its gas from Russia.

Germany gets its nuclear and coal energy domestically. But Chancellor Angela Merkel has vowed to phase out both of those energy sources within the next decade. The country has an ambitious renewable energy expansion program in place called the Energiewende which is designed to replace those energy sources with solar and wind. But sceptics say it is more likely to be replaced by Russian gas – hence the economic imperative of the new Nord Stream II pipeline which Trump criticised at the NATO summit.

Under these circumstances, why not keep nuclear energy as a source for a few more years until the renewables catch up and relying on Russian gas can be diminished?

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    As written, this appears to be asking for speculation, which is one of this sites custom close reasons. If I’m misunderstanding, feel free to explain to me how, or edit your question. Nov 17, 2021 at 17:01
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    What does the sentence "Germany gets its nuclear and coal energy domestically" mean? AFAIK Germany does not have Uranium mines.
    – FluidCode
    Nov 17, 2021 at 17:24
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    I feel it is worth pointing out that your first article is talking about an interview the executive director of EDF – a large producer of nuclear power – gave. Obviously, the interviewee who is being quoted is a biased source. This doesn't take away from the question as a whole, though.
    – Jan
    Nov 17, 2021 at 17:45
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    @FluidCode no active uranium mines, yes. But the Wismut AG used to mine in Saxonia and Thuringa, and there are significant amounts of Uranium left. New mining operations in these regions are currently being considered for other elements.
    – user39964
    Nov 18, 2021 at 2:44
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    I was about to say that it was a political (rather than practical, reasonable, or technological) decision. But then i noticed which *.stackexchange site i was on. It was a political decision - which has all usual amount of rationality as most political decisions.
    – Ian Boyd
    Nov 20, 2021 at 20:33

5 Answers 5


The original decision to phase out nuclear power generation was made as part of the coalition agreement between SPD and the Green party in 1998. The reason that this was agreed upon is rooted in the history of the Green party: it can trace its roots mostly to anti-war protests of the 1970's and 1980's, the environment protection movement of the same period, the democracy movement in the former GDR and – most importantly for this question – the anti-nuclear power movement that had existed since the 1970's but gained enormous traction after the meltdown of Chernobyl in 1986. As phasing out nuclear power was one of the key demands of the Greens, it was of utmost importance to them to include it into the coalition agreement and see it get passed.

At the time (late 1990's and 2000's), the other parties represented in parliament were mostly neutral or mildly approving of nuclear power, so the phase-out was definitely seen as a Green achievement in government. In 2005, the coalition was not re-elected after chancellor Schröder called a snap election. Instead and due in part to the post-election deadlock I described elsewhere, a grand coalition of SPD and CDU/CSU under chancellor Merkel was formed. Merkel, who studied physics and holds a PhD in quantum chemistry, was and is pro-nuclear power generation, but the SPD did not want to roll back the policies of the previous government so things stayed as they were.

In 2009, the CDU and CSU won the next scheduled general election and were able to enter a coalition government with the FDP. At the time, the FDP was mostly critical of the decision to phase out nuclear power and so an agreement was reached to extend the runtime of the nuclear power plants still generating electricity; potentially as a first step towards removing the phase-out deadline altogether.

In 2011, another meltdown happened in Fukushima, mere months after the extension decision had been made. This caused large anti-nuclear power demonstrations across the country, the CDU to lose power in the state of Baden-Württemberg – a state which had been governed by the CDU since the 1950's – and the Green party to end up ahead of the SPD in that state, leading to the first Green minister president and Green-led state government (although other issues specific to Baden-Württemberg also influenced the state election in favour of the Greens). The Baden-Württemberg election was a mere two weeks after the Fukushima incident.

Merkel's government attempted to meet public sentiment by walking back on the decision to extend nuclear power phase-out deadlines, and in the summer of 2011 the Bundestag voted with 513 out of 600 votes to increase the phase-out speed. The vote was by name (meaning every member of parliament went on record with their aye, no or abstention) and if I recall correctly it was also declared a decision of conscience rather than subject to party discipline. Anti-nuclear power sentiment in the general public was at its highest.

There has essentially been no further attempt to revise the legal situation. Opinion polls have, as far as I am aware, consistently recorded a clear majority against using nuclear power to generate electricity. Except for the AfD, no party in parliament currently supports extending nuclear power use or building new plants.

The question of extending nuclear power generation precisely to reduce dependence on coal has been brought up every now and again. However, a decade ago phasing out coal production was not a big issue in Germany (outside of the Green party which claimed to have strategies to phase out both rapidly). As the fate of nuclear power has been essentially sealed since, no significant attempts to bring up this argument have been made in recent times. (The AfD does not count as they reject the science surrounding anthropogenic climate change and global warming; they prefer keeping nuclear and coal-powered electricity.)

When it comes to actual power generation, it is important to separate the two major types of plants: base power generation and peak power generation. Coal and nuclear power plants are typically base power generation plants: they can only be revved up or cooled down relatively slowly so they cannot respond well to short-term increases or decreases in demand. On the other hand, gas power plants are typically able to respond to changes in demand much faster which makes them peak power generation plants. In theory, renewable energy sources can qualify as peak power generators as most can be shut off quickly and easily; in practice, however, most of them are limited by the natural resource that is powering them, putting them outside of these general categories. Nevertheless, while nuclear power would be a good replacement for coal (and has been discussed as one outside of Germany a lot), it is not a good choice to replace responsive gas plants.
It seems this paragraph no longer represents the current state of technology. cf the following statement by Pete W, initially posted as a comment:

Minor detail regarding base load -- The tech has advanced. Current generation of nuclear plants are designed with load following in mind. The most impressive example is France, where nuclear fleet makes up 70% of generation, yet, as a whole, operates in load-following mode. [see here]. The Korean APR-1400 and Russian VVER-1200 units have also demonstrated load following. The substantial number of Chinese reactors in the pipeline will likely have this too.

In addition, a lot of gas is used directly in building heating systems and to supply hot water. In fact, only 14 % of German gas consumption is for electricity generation. Therefore, nuclear power cannot be used to replace gas in any meaningful capacity in Germany as most German buildings are not heated by electricity.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation about different heating technologies has been moved to chat.
    – Philipp
    Nov 18, 2021 at 12:35
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    One should also note that the double switch in 2011 cost the government a lot of money that had to be paid to the power companies owning the nuclear power plants to compensate them for multiple one-sided condition changes. This means that changing the rules yet again (regardless of how) is seen as very complicated, very expensive and hence undesirable.
    – quarague
    Nov 18, 2021 at 12:39
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    Merkel's PhD is in quantum chemistry, but everything else is accurate. Basically a decision based on an overwhelming democratic mandate. I remember something like 80% polling in favour of shutting down the nuclear plants in 2011. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angela_Merkel
    – craq
    Nov 18, 2021 at 20:19
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    I think the important thing about base load in nuclear power plants isn't a technological limitation, but an economic one. The vast majority of the costs of a coal or gas power plant's electricity comes from the fuel - reducing output also means reducing most of the expenses. It still increases the averaged cost per MWh, but far less than in a nuclear plant. In an energy market with a mix with little nuclear, nuclear plants will sell even for very low prices - there's no benefit to following the load. The bigger share of the mix for nuclear, the less of a choice there is.
    – Luaan
    Nov 19, 2021 at 15:24

Regarding the final part of the question -- why not keep nuclear power "for a few more years"?

[Clarification- I was interpreting this to mean the choice of building another generation of nuclear plants, as some countries are doing, to provide nominally zero-CO2-emission electricity for the next 20-30 years while the electric system of the future comes online. As opposed to shutting down nuclear plants that are already built, for which the arguments below do not apply.]

One important problem is cost. Nuclear electric generation power has highest capital cost of all the options, reflecting the extreme care required. This requires a commitment to 30-40 year planning, which is the first impediment to widespread deployment.

It gets more difficult when integrated into a system built around wind/solar, as is planned. The problem of short-term storage (e.g. overnight) will probably be solved. Still, the capacity of the wind/solar part of the system (their maximum output) is sized with the design constraint of the time of year when wind and sun are at minimum. When the system is fully built out, there will be an excess of wind/solar power the rest of the year. This reduces the utilization rate of the non-renewables.

In the case of natural gas, the impact of reduced utilization rate -- wasted capital cost -- is significant but bearable. At least the fuel cost doesn't have to be paid when the gas generation is not used. In the case of nuclear, nearly all the cost is capital cost, and it is also the highest to start with. Significant reduction in utilization decimates the economics, except in places that have entire seasons of cloudy low-wind weather.

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    This is reasonable when considering building new power stations (if you accept the "solar is better than nuclear" argument). But for existing stations the capital cost is already largely spent, and keeping them "for a few more years" might easily be reasonable, even if it creates excess of power most of the year. For one, this could delay (or spread over longer time) the urgent need to build highly manoeuvrable peak stations (which still have to cover a great portion of the total peak demand).
    – Zeus
    Nov 18, 2021 at 8:18
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    "The problem of short-term storage (e.g. overnight) will probably be solved." Neat bit of hand-wavery there.
    – RedSonja
    Nov 18, 2021 at 8:19
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    @RedSonja Grid storage technology is maturing rapidly. The evidence that it will become widespread in the coming decades is alll around. I don't think that's a controversial statement.
    – J...
    Nov 18, 2021 at 13:57
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    @JonathanReez Yeah, but those regulations are there for a really good reason: To make nuclear at least half palatable to the general public. There's a plainly ludicrous level of risk aversion among the people when it comes to nuclear power, mostly because "nuclear" translates to "magic" for most. Even if coal kills way more people than all nuclear accidents combined, people will still fear nuclear unless you regulate the hell out of it. There's no quick fix for that public perception issue, maybe even no fix at all.
    – TooTea
    Nov 19, 2021 at 7:21
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    @TooTea That's basically it - nuclear lost a public relations war. It's a shame; nuclear power has the potential to produce really serious industrial accidents - on a par with the plastics, chemical, oil, and coal industries. But it does not have the capacity to destroy our civilisation. Fossil fuel does. Nov 19, 2021 at 7:43

Germany started importing Soviet gas during the Cold War. Since then, the Soviet Union and later Russia have delivered gas as contracted and the Germans have paid as contracted. Neither side wants the contracts to end.

Compare the history to the politics of nuclear power and Fukushima as mentioned by Jan.

That being said, gas is sold both under long-term contracts and on the spot market. There seems to be an unusual (and economically hard to understand) reluctance by Russia to sign fresh contracts on the spot market. And the statements by Lukashenko are worrying, whether Russia authorized them and they're playing good cop/bad cop or whether he has gone against Russia in that regard.


The reason is crazier than you may think:

Sometimes there's a woman
I won't say hero because what's a hero
but sometimes there's a woman
and I'm talking about Merkel here
sometimes there's a woman ... well ...
she's the woman for her time and place
she fits right in there
and that's Merkel in Berlin.

Adapted from The Big Lebowski

The decision to phase out nuclear power faster than originally planned was essentially the initiative and responsibility of the chancellor at that time, Angela Merkel, after the Fukushima accident.

Mrs. Merkel holds a PhD in quantum chemistry. It is unsurprising that a scientist comes to a different risk assessment than the average politician. Apparently her assessment was that the risk overrode all other considerations.

Here is the reporting about Merkel's decision from the usually well-informed and connected Spiegel magazine1 from April 4, 2011, 23 days after the disaster. It may be behind a pay wall for non-subscribers. The English translation follows below. Emphasis and square brackets by me.

Jahrzehntelang hatte ihr [Merkel] der wissenschaftliche Verstand einer Quantenchemikerin gesagt: Nach allen Regeln der Wahrscheinlichkeit ist Kernkraft eine vertretbare Energie. Die deutsche Angst davor hielt sie für irrational.

»Die Deutschen haben kein Verhältnis zur Wahrscheinlichkeit«, hatte sie seinerzeit als Umweltministerin in der Atomdebatte wiederholt geklagt. Nun dauerte es nur wenige Stunden, um Merkels Verhältnis zur Wahrscheinlichkeit einer atomaren Katastrophe umzustürzen.

Die Kanzlerin war am frühen Nachmittag des 11. März auf dem Weg zum Europäischen Rat in Berlin-Tegel ins Flugzeug gestiegen, mit der letzten Meldung versorgt, dass ein fürchterlicher Tsunami Japan überschwemmt habe. Vier Tote waren offiziell bestätigt, als der Airbus abhob. In Brüssel gelandet, schaltete Merkel ihr iPad ein; während der Fahrt in die Stadt verfolgte sie die Meldungen.

Um 15.30 Uhr mitteleuropäischer Zeit wurde gemeldet, dass Japan den atomaren Notstand ausgerufen hatte. Im Tagungszentrum der EU-Regierungschefs verfolgte sie, wann immer es ging, die Fernsehbilder aus Japan. Es war etwas eingetreten, das Merkel für nicht vorstellbar gehalten hatte. Sie ließ sich nichts anmerken und absolvierte die Sitzung äußerlich ungerührt. Aber für sich, ganz im Stillen, hatte sie eine Entscheidung getroffen.

»Das war's!«, sagte sie am nächsten Morgen, als sie mit ihrem Büro die Lage erörterte. In Fukushima ging für die deutsche Kanzlerin das atomare Zeitalter zu Ende.

English translation mine:

For decades, her [Merkel's] scientific mind of a quantum chemist had told her: According to all rules of probability, nuclear power is a defensible energy source. She considered the German nuclear angst irrational.

"The Germans have no connection to probabilities", she had complained repeatedly in the nuclear debate, back when she was secretary of the environment. Now a few hours was all it took to topple her own connection to the probabilities of a nuclear catastrophe.

The chancellor had boarded her airplane in the early afternoon of March 11 in Berlin Tegel, supplied with the news that a terrible tsunami had inundated Japan. Four fatalities were officially confirmed when the Airbus took off. After touch-down in Brussels, Merkel switched on her iPad; on the way into the city she was following the news.

At 3.30 p.m. Central European Time the news came that Japan had proclaimed a nuclear emergency. In the conference center of the EU government chiefs she followed the TV images from Japan whenever possible. An event had occurred that Merkel had considered unimaginable. She didn't let on and continued the session outwardly unaffected. But by herself, inwardly, she had made a decision.

"It's over!" she said the next morning when she discussed the situation with her staff. In Fukushima, the nuclear age ended for the German chancellor.

Of course, this is partly conjecture: Even Spiegel magazine does not quite know what Merkel thinks when she doesn't let on. But Spiegel certainly has sources within her staff and within the relevant departments who must have told the same story: The decision was made then and there, by Merkel.

Of course, part of the motivation to decide that way was public opinion, and she had to install an ethics committee headed by her longtime party friend Klaus Töpfer that purely coincidentally recommended exactly what she planned to do; she had to build coalitions to break the substantial opposition to the plans and play the usual political games, something she was very good at by then. But it was her decision, she was in the position to implement it, and that is what she did.

That is the reason Germany is exiting nuclear power.

1 According to wikipedia, "one of continental Europe's most influential magazines", "known in German-speaking countries mostly for its investigative journalism". No journalistic lightweight.

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    Although it's true that Merkel took responsibility in this (and that's probably one of the reasons why the decision hasn't faced serious challenges since, what with her big respect across multiple parties) it certainly wasn't just her scientist's assessment that made the decision. On the contrary, Fukushima caused a widespread and sudden change of mind in large parts of the population as well as many politicians (whether because of conviction or populism is up for speculation). Nov 18, 2021 at 17:06
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    Having a PhD in quantum chemistry doesn't really make on an expert in nuclear physics - the two fields are rather far apart. Moreover, we are dealing here not with nuclear physics, but nuclear engineering, since all the relevant physics was done by the 50s. If Ursus spoke Latin, it was because he knew it. He would never have allowed himself to speak Syriac, which he did not know. Nov 18, 2021 at 20:04
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    @RogerVadim It gets you substantially closer than a law degree ;-). Nov 18, 2021 at 20:33
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    @Peter-ReinstateMonica let's not get abusive. Some scientists do think that having mastered their own field makes the eligible to judge about other sciences, politics, economy, etc. without having ever learned them. But some of us do know better and adopt more humble attitude. As for the people writing for Spiegel and other media - these typically have their knowledge limited to a course Science for journalists :) Nov 19, 2021 at 10:18
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    Scientists in any field are familiar with numerical reasoning, with probabilities and statistics and estimation and margins of error, in a way that non-scientists are not. I would think the impact of Fukushima on anyone accustomed to this way of reasoning would be that the rationale based on probabilities had been shown to be wrong, because it was based on a model that turned out to be incomplete; and that it was not enough simply to make these decisions based on a model, there needed to be confidence that the model was correct. Nov 19, 2021 at 18:23

I got some empirical evidence to add. It shows that Jans comment is right: "candidate junctures lead to institutional change only if preexisting conditions push central agents to deviate from the status quo and incite a collective reorientation of beliefs" The paper also compares it to the discourse in Japan and Canada at the same time. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/rego.12238

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