Four days that changed Germany

This is a four-minute read

On Thursday 10 years ago a huge earthquake hit the northeast of Japan, unleashing a tsunami that smashed into the country’s coastline. While nuclear power plants survived the magnitude nine quake, the wave swamped the Fukushima nuclear plant causing its backup electricity to fail. 

With no electricity, the reactor cores could no longer be cooled. A day later an explosion ripped through one reactor. Two days a further explosion occurred, while the cores continued to melt. Hundreds of thousands of people had to be evacuated. To this day, the toxic mess at Fukushima still hasn’t been cleared up.

It was one of the worst disasters in Japan’s post-war history. But Germans were also transfixed by the images of the explosions at the reactors. Although the disaster happened 9,000 kilometres away, it had dramatic consequences here too.

Nuclear power had always been an issue that provoked an emotional response in Germany.

The Green party was forged in the midst of hefty battles between police and protesters at nuclear power plants in the 1970s. When the Greens entered government in 1998, they convinced the Social Democrats to commit to a step-by-step exit from nuclear energy.

At the same time, nuclear energy remained popular in the ranks of the Christian Democrats. When Angela Merkel became Chancellor she told her party conference that “I will always consider it nonsense to shut down safe nuclear power plants that don’t emit C02. The Social Democrats will see that too eventually, but it always takes them a bit longer.”

In 2010, when in government with the Free Democrats, Merkel decided to extend the life spans of Germany’s more modern nuclear facilities. Public attitudes to Kernenergie were also starting to improve, as people recognized that it was a way of producing energy that didn’t pollute the atmosphere.

But Fukushima flicked a switch.

For the Green party, it was the fulfilment of a prophecy they had been making since Chernobyl. If a Super-GAU could happen in a highly advanced society like Japan, it could happen here too, they said.

Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets, calling from an immediate shutdown of the nuclear supply, which at the time was supplying a quarter of Germany’s electricity needs.

Sigmar Gabriel, then leader of the Social Democrats, stepped in front of the TV cameras to declare that “we will only be safe if we immediately shut down the old reactors.”

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Angela Merkel came under intense pressure to act. Initially she announced that security checks would be conducted on all the country's reactors. Asked on the evening news whether the reactors were safe, she replied somewhat limply that “according to everything we know, our nuclear reactors are safe this evening.”

In the background though, she was already preparing the biggest U-turn of her career.

By Sunday, she had organized a meeting with the top members of her government where they discussed the idea of a “moratorium” for reactors built before 1980. Her Environment Minister came up with the solution of “temporarily” running them down while security checks were being conducted. How long that temporary shut down would be was anyone’s guess.

On Tuesday, as the meltdown in Fukushima was still in full swing, the Chancellor invited the state leaders to Berlin to discuss the moratorium. There was reportedly massive resistance. But little did they know, she had arranged a press conference for midday at which an announcement would be made. The state leaders had little choice but to nod along as she presented her fait accompli.

Within a week all reactors built before 1980 had been taken from the grid for good. Three months later, the Bundestag passed a law setting 2022 as the end date for all nuclear power in Germany.

Why, one might ask, did a nuclear meltdown after a tsunami hit Japan lead to such fear about the immediate safety situation at power plants so far away? The German reaction was almost unique in Europe.

Four months after the disaster the UK government would announce plans for the next generation its nuclear energy; barely a whisper of resistance would be heard.

At the European level, safety regulations were once again tightened, with plants now having to withstand a magnitude 8 earthquake. Just for context, Germany has never been hit by an earthquake higher than 5.8 on the Richter scale.

But the German debate isn’t always grounded in a sober weighing up of risks.

The Greens argue that everything seems fine with nuclear until it isn’t. That’s true: nuclear power can never be 100 percent safe. Perhaps that tiny risk is too much for a responsibly society to take.

But the environmentalists also have a tendency to exaggerate the risks. On yesterday’s anniversary they posted a Tweet about “tens of thousands who died, a region which remains uninhabitable due to nuclear energy. The only thing that is certain is the risk.”

In fact, only five people died due to the reactor meltdown (the rest of the deaths were due to the earthquake) and a recent UN report found no long-term health consequences among the local population.

While the Greens later deleted the post, their Freudian slip told us a lot about what they really think.

And this attitude is hampering German energy policy.

The UK’s investment in nuclear power means that it will stop using coal altogether within the next three to four years. Nuclear power will remain a critical source of energy in Britain, as electricity is expected to rise from around 17 percent of final energy demand today to 50 percent by the middle of the century.

Germany, which is planning to move its transport sector onto electric in the coming years, needs reliable, affordable electricity. As the construction of onshore wind farms falters, it is unrealistic to think that renewables alone can cover this demand.

So why did Ms Merkel decide to shut down plants German energy companies boast were “the safest in the world”?

No one thinks she did it due to a Damascene conversion. Mr Gabriel of the SPD told broadcaster ARD that “Merkel’s special talent is in recognizing what the country wants and implementing it.”

Renate Künast of the Greens was more bluntly: “Ms Merkel often doesn’t make a priority of her own convictions.”

In other words, the German public were afraid - and she responded. The veteran Chancellor famously said during a subsequent crisis that Angst war noch nie ein guter Ratgeber. That’s not advice she’s always listened to.


Who we are:

Jörg Luyken: Journalist based in Berlin since 2014. His work has been published by German and English outlets including der Spiegel, die Welt, the Daily Telegraph. Formerly in the Middle East. Classicist; Masters in International Politics & Arabic from St Andrews.

Axel Bard Bringéus: Started his career as a journalist for the leading Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet and has spent the last decade in senior roles at Spotify and as a venture capital investor. In Berlin since 2011.