Nuclear power in Germany - History and future prospects

Master's Thesis, 2012

82 Pages, Grade: sehr gut


Table of contents


List of abbreviations

1. Introduction

2. Analytical framework
2.1. Kingdon’s multiple streams model
2.2. Rational choice theory
2.3. The role of the media
2.4. Putting it all together: the analytical framework

3. Historical analysis
3.1. 1955 - 1967: The speculative phase
3.2. 1967 - 1975: The breakthrough phase
3.3. 1975 - 1986: The stagnation phase
3.4. 1986 - 1998: The decline phase
3.5. 1998 - 2009: The political decline phase
3.6. 2009 - 2011: The revival phase
3.7. 2011 - onwards: The final phase

4. Germany’s new energy program
4.1. The policies of the energy program
4.2. Progress and problems of the new energy program

5. Conclusion


List of abbreviations

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1. Introduction

"We have the chance to be the world's first industrialised nation to switch over to the electricity of the future" (Merkel, 2011a).

This statement by the German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel given during a plenary session in the German Parliament, the Bundestag, on the 9th of June 2011 marked the beginning of a new era of energy production in Germany. Soon after the nuclear catastrophe in the Japanese nuclear power plant Fukushima Daiichi had occurred, the current German government which is composed of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its sister party the Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CSU) and its coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) decided to revise their energy strategy that was set up after the election in the fall 2010. In June 2011 the decision was taken to phase out German nuclear power plants by the end of 2022 and to direct the new energy strategy towards renewable energies.

Besides the beginning of a new era of energy production, the decisions also marked the end of a long-lasting societal conflict about the usage of nuclear power in Germany. Statements by politicians like Jürgen Trittin, Chairman of Parliamentary Group of the Green Party, who spoke about the ‘splitting of society’ (2010) or Sigmar Gabriel, Leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), who called the debate on nuclear power in Germany ‘a major societal conflict’ (2010) point to the intensity and highly charged nature of the debate. According to Severin Fischer, the conflict dates back to the first formations of anti-nuclear power movements during the 1970s and had lasted for the following decades. The conflict was amplified by the accident in the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station (TMI) in the United States in 1979 and by the nuclear catastrophe in Chernobyl in 1986. Both events raised awareness of the uncertainty and potential dangers resulting from the usage of nuclear energy and triggered the biggest public anti-nuclear protests marches of the time.

Besides the discontent of parts of the German society, the Chernobyl accident also led to changes in the party landscape. After years of internal debates on nuclear power, one of the two large people’s parties, the SPD, changed their position on the usage of nuclear energy and has since then called for an exit strategy for nuclear power generation. However, for the government of that time nuclear energy had been a safe and efficient form of energy production which guaranteed Germany’s energy security. Therefore, nuclear power plants were supported by the coalition government of the CDU/CSU which was in power from 1982 to 1998 and its coalition partner from 1983 onwards, the FDP.

After the federal elections in October 1998, the coalition changed to a government formed by the SPD and the Green Party which also resulted in a change in German nuclear energy policies. The 2000 ‘consensus on the usage of nuclear energy’ between the government and the energy providers led to the amendment of the German Atomic Energy Law in 2002. The amendment provided regulations on the process of the nuclear phase-out with flexible mechanisms for each German nuclear power plant. One of the key provisions was the restriction of the residual operation time of existing nuclear plants to 32 years, counted from the date the power plant had been constructed. Moreover, the construction of new nuclear power plants was abolished by the amendment (BMU, 2002).

However, the consensus was not supported by the CDU/CSU and the FDP as the parties still pointed at the benefits of nuclear energy, namely cheap and efficient energy production. Therefore, the three parties campaigned for an extension of the operation time and stressed the importance of nuclear power for Germany’s energy security during the election campaign for the federal elections in 2005. Moreover, they stated that in their opinion nuclear power plants were safe and that the decision of SPD and the Green Party had been a mistake (CDU/CSU, 2005). However, the 2005 election results did not allow for a takeover by CDU/CSU and the FDP as the voters favored a coalition government of CDU/CSU and the SPD. As a consequence of this ‘grand coalition’ between the two dominant people’s parties, it was agreed not to discuss nuclear power issues because the parties’ opinions were differing too much. Their positions did also not change for the elections in 2009 when the current coalition government of CDU/CSU and FDP was elected into office.

Back in power, the coalition parties agreed to extend the operation time of nuclear power plants because they regarded nuclear power technology to be an important transitory technology that is needed along the way to renewable energy production (CDU/CSU & FDP, 2009). Consequently, the German Atomic Energy Law was changed again in September 2010. It was decided that the 17 German power plants should on average operate 12 years longer than planned in order to secure energy supplies while transitioning the energy production to renewable energy sources (The Federal Government, 2010). The decision was heavily criticized by both, the opposition parties of the German Bundestag and the German anti-nuclear movement.

As one can see from the short introduction on the history of nuclear power generation in Germany, the societal debate on the usage of nuclear power has lasted for about forty years and has been one of the most contested political issues in the country. Moreover, the decision to phase out has marked an important step in energy production and consumption from a global perspective, as the decision sets Germany apart from the other G8 countries. Solely Italy is the only other country that does not produce energy using nuclear technologies.[1] Further, the majority of the G20 states are currently using or planning to use nuclear power in the future. Among these, the world’s leading economies being the United States, China, Japan, France, the United Kingdom, India, Brazil and Russia are planning or are already constructing new nuclear power plants. This points at the peculiarity of Germany’s decision to phase out (World Nuclear Association, 2012b). Both remarks make Germany an interesting case to study with regard to its nuclear power program and energy strategy. The observations give rise to the thesis’ hypothesis that the rather unique decision to phase out has been gradually influenced by the societal debate in Germany as the other industrialized countries hold on to nuclear technologies. The hypothesis leads to the research question how the long-lasting societal debate affected the political decision to phase out. Moreover, the question is raised how the decision is put into practice. For the first question, the paper follows a historical analysis methodology that will elaborate on the history of nuclear power in Germany. For answering the second question, the policies that established the phase-out as well as the new energy strategy will be shortly reviewed in order to depict the future of Germany’s energy supply. This part will be based on a study of the progress reached so far and problems which already have been encountered in the implementation of the new energy program. As a result, the paper will provide a rather complete picture of nuclear power generation in Germany for the past, present and possible future.

The analysis of the history part will be based on a combination of three analytical theories and models which are interrelated and will be put together to form the analytical framework of the paper. First of all, John Kingdon’s ‘multiple streams model’ will be used in order to analyze factors influencing domestic agenda-setting and decision making processes. The model, which forms the corner stone of the analytical framework, explains how policy ideas may become part of the societal and political debate and might even be adopted.

Secondly, the rational choice theory put forward by several authors will be used in order to explain the behavior of parties and politicians which is not specifically clarified in Kingdon’s model. The theory is based on the assumption of individuals acting in their own interests and is traditionally used in economics along with the concept of profit maximization. However, in this case it will be applied in order to analyze how parties and politicians try to maximize election result and secure their positions. Thirdly, the role of the media in the policy-making process will be discussed as the multiple streams model indirectly takes up the media as an actor but does not show its relation to the policy-making process. Here, models by Steven Livingston and Piers Robinson will be taken up which explain the circumstances under which the media might be able to influence the political agenda.

As stated above, the models and theories will be put together so that one coherent framework will be set up for the analysis of the German nuclear power history and the underlying societal and political debate. In doing so, the paper will use a rather unique approach to show the dynamics and the interplay of the different stakeholders involved in the long-lasting societal debate on the usage of nuclear power. The framework will shed light on some of the intentions and considerations that influence the behavior and decision-making of stakeholders involved in the debate. Thus, the paper will not only provide a historical picture of nuclear power in Germany, but will present insights that will help to explain why certain decisions have been taken at a particular moment in time.

Resulting from the presented outline, the paper is divided into four main sections. The first section will present the models and theories that will be used in order to form the analytical framework of this paper. Secondly, the history of nuclear power in Germany up to the events of Fukushima will be discussed in order to understand the complex nature of the societal discourse, party politics and external events influencing the debate. Thirdly, post-Fukushima energy policies will be presented and analyzed. The main features and goals of the policies will be presented and assessed. Moreover, the paper will take a look at the progress of the implementation of the new energy program and will discuss problems which already have been encountered. Fourthly, the paper will conclude with a summary of the history and the policies establishing the nuclear phase-out.

2. Analytical framework

The following three sub-sections will present the models and theories which will be combined in order to form the analytical framework of this paper. It will be explained why these models and theories are used and how they complement each other in the analytical framework. As already stated in the introduction of this work, the historical analysis is set out to depict and explain the societal debate on the usage of nuclear technology. The understanding of the concept of ‘society’ entails that “society is not only a simple collection of individuals, groups and institution, but is a whole entity that consists of all these elements plus their interrelationships” (Andersen & Taylor, 2008, p. 112). Based on this understanding the analytical framework will incorporate the most important stakeholders and show their interrelation in the discussion on the usage of nuclear power and the political decision-making process on atomic policies.

2.1. Kingdon’s multiple streams model

John Kingdon’s multiple streams model is based on a study of policy-agenda setting in the United States and is set out to explain the agenda-setting process of domestic policies. As such the model explains why certain policy proposals might enter the policy process, become topics of discussion or will even lead to a policy change. Therefore, Kingdon’s model is a useful tool to analyze the political debate on nuclear power in Germany, its emergence as well as temporary disappearance and the policy change in 2011.

The model centers on the key concept of three different types of streams which are constantly floating within the ‘primeval soup’, a picture Kingdon uses to depict the policy-making process. The first stream is the so-called ‘problem stream’ where a problem, through indicators, is recognized by decision makers. According to Kingdon, an issue becomes visible as a problem when ideas and proposals are formulated to tackle the problem. Policy entrepreneurs try to emphasize problems by highlighting a problem’s indicator. In case of nuclear power, such an indicator could be the risk of man-made errors or the problems arising from the storage of nuclear waste. Additionally, problems become apparent by so-called ‘focusing events’ such as disasters of any kind (Kingdon, 2002). The nuclear catastrophes in Chernobyl as well as in Fukushima serve as prime examples for a focusing event shifting attention to a problem. Birkland’s study on the impact of disasters supports Kingdon’s observation of focusing events but points out that “an event is more likely to be focal if an interest group or groups are available to exploit the event” (1998, p.72).

Further, Kingdon suggests that only policies which have been formulated before focusing events have taken place might become prominent in the second, the so-called ‘policy stream’. This stream is the center of policy formulation and refinement. Within this stream, politicians, bureaucrats, scientists, researchers, academics as well as interest groups and citizen’s initiatives are interacting. They all may take up the role of policy entrepreneurs who invest time and other resources such as money or human power in order to promote and argue for their preferred policies. As such, the policy stream is defined by a “gradual accumulation of knowledge and perspectives among the specialists of a given policy area” (Kingdon, 2002, p. 17). However, as multitudes of policy proposals are developed, only a few of them are actually taken into account when an opportunity arises. This decision is primarily based on factors such as the costs of a policy, technical feasibility, acceptance by the public, the academic community as well as politicians and their parties and the consensus with other important stakeholders such as industry branches. Moreover, Kingdon emphasizes that policy proposals have best chances to be used if they are basically ‘ready’ when an opportunity arises. Therefore, Kingdon’s model has to be seen as a proactive approach in which policy solutions do not respond to problems but are seeking problems in order to respond to them.

The third and final ‘political stream’ encompasses changes in the political environment. These changes may be results of elections, changes in the administration or vagaries in public opinion and the ‘national mood’. Kingdon points out that changes in the administration might lead to the emphasis of different policies and the rearrangement of political agenda priorities. Moreover, changes in public opinion affect the decision of politicians and parties to a certain extent.

As such, these streams are separate from each other and float within the primeval soup. However, Kingdon puts forward the idea that the three streams “come together at certain critical times [when] [s]olutions become joined by problems, and both of them are joined to favourable political forces” (ibid., p. 20). Kingdon explains that the coupling “is most likely when policy windows - opportunities for pushing pet proposals or conception of problems - are open” (ibid.). These ‘windows of opportunity’ open either due to the appearance of a problem or shifts in the political environment whereas the policy stream is only reactive to changes of the other two streams. For a window of opportunity to open, all three streams need to be coupled which is illustrated in Figure 1.

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Figure 1: Kingdon's multiple streams model: The coupling of all three streams (Versluis et al, 2011, p. 116).

Kingdon emphasizes that a coupling of the streams usually entails policy entrepreneurs who either attach preferred solutions to an emerging problem or push the solutions through the political system which positively responds to the policy entrepreneurs’ ideas. At the same time policy entrepreneurs need to be quick in using the window of opportunity as it tends to close rather fast.

It becomes evident that Kingdon’s model encompasses a multitude of stakeholders and factors influencing the agenda-setting process. The following analytical tools accompany the multiple streams model in order to explain the behavior of the most important stakeholders in the societal debate about the usage of nuclear technology.

2.2. Rational choice theory

Kingdon’s multiple streams model only observes and explains the behavior of policy entrepreneurs without going into detail of specific actors. Therefore, this sub-section looks at the rational choice theory as an approach to analyze the behavior of politicians and political parties as they are central to the discussion on nuclear power in Germany. The theory which is also often referred to as ‘public choice theory’ draws upon economic theory and its key assumption that “individuals act in their own best interests” (Hill, 2009, p. 91). The concepts of economic rational choice theory were first applied to the field of politics by Anthony Downs who defines ‘rational action’ as an action which is intended to achieve political and/or economic ends of every single political actor participating in the so-called ‘political market place’ (Downs, 1957). Relating from that, Mueller summarizes the characteristics of political actors stating that “the basic behavioural postulate of public- choice as for economics, is that man is an egoistic, rational, utility maximiser” (1979, p.1). Though Downs applies rational economic thought to all political actors including the electorate, the paper at hand uses the theory mainly for the analysis of politicians and in particular for the behavior of political parties.

According to the rational choice theory, parties compete in the political market place in order to win votes and power. Thus, their main aim is to maximize their electoral support for the purpose of winning elections and thereby holding important and powerful positions. In Downs’ words party members act “solely in order to attain the income, prestige, and power which comes from being in office” (1957, p. 28). Of course these aims are not communicated to the public as it would undermine any chances of being elected into office. However, Downs points out that these interests are at the basis of politicians and that they do not seek to be elected in order to promote particular policies. Therefore, Downs emphasizes that “parties formulate policies in order to win elections, rather than win elections to formulate policies” (ibid.). As a consequence, parties have to differentiate themselves from others to a certain extent so that their policies attract more voters than policies of their competitors. Nonetheless, one has to stress the fact that differentiations move around the median voter theorem in order to guarantee a maximum of votes. This is particularly valid for two-party system or multi-party systems which are dominated by two larger people’s parties such as in Germany.

Moreover, Tullock (1976) and Brittain (1977) stress the fact that political parties respond not only to the demands of the electorate but are also put under pressure by interest groups. Once party members have been elected into office, there is strong pressure on the parties to yield to the demands which center on “the role of the state as a giver of benefits” (Hill, 2009, p. 93). These benefits include the creation or protection of jobs, the promotion of certain projects or technologies, contracts and services as well as tax concessions. In return interests groups may support parties financially and promote their programs within their organizational structures. In the case of nuclear power important interest groups comprise energy suppliers, the industry which demands cheap electricity, the renewable energy industry including research institutions and think tanks, trade unions, environmental groups such as Greenpeace or local citizen initiatives. Besides idealistic ambitions of some interest groups, Buchanan and Tullock (1962) emphasize that most actors follow the ‘rent-seeking behavior’ in order to secure their interests in the policy process.

2.3. The role of the media

Recalling the importance of ‘focusing events’ for the recognition of problems in Kingdon’s multiple streams model, one has to point out that the media takes on a significant role in the promotion and amplification of problems as part of their news coverage. Moreover, politicians and political parties use the media in order to promote their policies and gain public recognition. As the media as an stakeholder is not incorporated in Kingdon’s multiple streams model, this sub-section takes up the work of Steven Livingston and Piers Robinson in order to explain the role of the media in the policy-making process.

According to Steven Livingston, the media has become an important stakeholder in policy making since advancements in communication technology allowed for 24-hours all news coverage which is able to use live footage from all over the world (2007). CNN, the first television channel to broadcast with this type of news coverage became a symbol “of all real time news coverage” (Belknap, 2001, p. 1) and served as an eponym for Livingston ‘CNN effect’. Livingston identifies three different understandings of the effect the media can have on the policy-making process. However, only two of them will be presented in this sub-section as only these will be used throughout the paper at hand.

First of all, Livingston discusses the ‘power of images’ which he identifies as an impediment type of effect the media can have on the policy-making process. By showing strong picture of recent focusing events, the media is able to have an influence on emotions and perceptions in the public whereby certain reaction might be triggered. Livingston uses the example of live broadcasts from the First Gulf War which depicted inter alia dead U.S. soldiers and triggered a protest movement again the war in the United States. In case of nuclear power, the live broadcasting of the damages and explosions in Fukushima brought the event into German households and raised awareness for the focusing event. Secondly and relating to the first understanding, Livingston points out that the media may function as an agenda-setting agent. Images of focusing events may influence the policy-making process if the public reacts to the pictures in a way that the reaction puts pressure on policy makers to take action. Livingston argues that if the pressure of the media and the public is strong enough situations arise in which the “policy agenda itself is at times merely reflection of news content” (2007, p. 6).

Piers Robinson’s ‘policy-media interaction model’ takes up the ideas of Livingston on how the media is able to have an effect on the policy-making process. However, Robinson emphasizes that the CNN effect does not fully depict the relationship between the media and the process as the relationship has not yet been clearly theorized. Therefore, Robinson proposes his model which starts with the assumption that the effect of media coverage on the policy process is not always given or equally strong in each case.

According to the model, the media’s effect is particularly determined by the prevailing policy status. Either a situation prevails in which there is policy certainty or policy uncertainty. Robinson explains that the latter becomes identifiable if an “issue arises and no policy is in place, or if there is disagreement, conflict of interest or uncertainty between the executive subsystems” (Robinson, 2000, p.613). Relating to this, policy certainty has to be seen as the opposite of Robinson’s description of policy uncertainty. The distinction between the two possible policy statuses is of crucial importance as the media can only have an influence on the policy-making process if policy uncertainty prevails. However, another factor contributes to the media’s ability to affect the policy-making process as Robinsons points out that news coverage has to be “extensive and critical” (ibid., p. 615) in order to have an influence. Accordingly, the media is only able to affect the policy process if a situation of policy uncertainty prevails and the media covers an issue in an extensive and critical way. In such a situation pressure on the government is high and policy-makers are “forced to do something or face a public relations disaster” (ibid.).

Both of the model’s underlying assumption will be used for the analysis of the media’s impact on the decision making throughout the paper. In particular in the cases of focusing events it will become evident that the media is a significant stakeholder in the decision-making process.

2.4. Putting it all together: the analytical framework

As one can see from the three sub-sections above, the decision-making process can be analyzed with various theories and models which all shine a light on certain aspects of the process. Due to the interplay and interconnectedness of the theories, the paper at hand incorporates them into one analytical framework which will form the tool for the analysis of the long-lasting societal debate on nuclear power in Germany. This section is set out to explain the framework using some examples from the German history of nuclear power.

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Figure 2: The analytical framework

As one can see from Figure 2, Kingdon’s multiple streams model forms the corner stone of the analytical framework. Kingdon states that policy entrepreneurs try to combine the three streams to open a policy window and push their ideas and policy proposals through. In particular politicians and parties do this based on rational thought theory as they follow own party strategies and interests. Parties might even change party ideologies or strategies which have been in place for a longer period of time in order to react to occurring focusing events in the problem streams or changes in the politics stream. Thereby, they might want to distance themselves from other parties in order to meet public demands for certain policies and secure or gain political power. The SPD’s decision to oppose nuclear energy shortly after the Chernobyl crisis in 1986 may be seen as an attempt to differentiate the party from the government’s decision to support nuclear power. Moreover, all streams may be influenced by the media which, according to Livingston and Robinson, has to be seen as an influential stakeholder in the agenda-setting and decision-making process. As such the media is able to take up focusing events of the problem stream and amplify them by 24/7 broadcasting. Thereby, a focusing event may become a topic of public salience if the media is critically and intensively covering the topic. In order to have an influence on the decision-making process, Robinson points out that also policy uncertainty needs to prevail. Moreover, the media is able to promote ideas and policy proposals of the policy stream by taking them up in their reporting. For that reason, policy entrepreneurs try to use the media for their purposes as it serves as one of the most important channels to promote ideas and policy proposals. Further, the media may have an influence on the politics stream because media coverage of focusing events may lead to changes in the national mood or in the election behavior of the public.

Therefore, the public also has to be seen as a decisive stakeholder in the model as changes in public opinion can put pressure on parties and politicians. Protests marches against the construction of nuclear power plants or against nuclear power in general have to be seen as instruments to put pressure on policy makers. However, Höse and Oppermann (2007) point out that public opinion becomes only significant if three conditions are met. Firstly, public opinion must be clear and without ambiguity. According to the authors, this condition is usually met if 60 percent of the public share an opinion on a topic. Secondly, the topic needs to be salient, a condition which can be observed if the topic is extensively covered in the media. Thirdly, public opinion needs to have channels of influence like elections or referenda in order to become significant. As one can see, the conditions include parts of Kingdon’s problem and politics stream and point at the importance of the media which again shows the interrelatedness of stakeholders and the academic models. If public opinion becomes significant it puts pressure on politicians and parties to change the political status quo. In order to depict the public opinion, the work at hand will primarily use representative surveys provided by Forschungsgruppe Wahlen e.V. which publishes monthly surveys on ongoing political topics since 1974. According to the rational choice theory, politicians and parties are not only put under pressure by media coverage that may then lead to pressure from the public, but also from interest groups that follow a ‘rent-seeking behavior’. These pressure groups have certain interests in particular policies and compete with each other to influence policy entrepreneurs and the decision-making process.

As one can see from the described analytical framework, the decision-making process is influenced by various stakeholders that all follow certain interests. The theories used in the framework try to shine a light on the rationale of the process and are able to explain it to a certain extent. However, one has to acknowledge that no model is able to fully explain every aspect of the process. Nevertheless, the model will help the reader understand and grasp the dynamics and the interplay of the long-lasting debate about nuclear power in Germany.

3. Historical analysis

This section of the paper is set out to depict the historical development of the usage of nuclear power in Germany in order to assess the impact of the societal debate on Germany’s nuclear policies. It will be shown how the civil usage of nuclear technology was supported by a consensus of political parties and the public and later on developed to a topic of discontent and debate among various stakeholders. Moreover, it will be analyzed if and how external events such as nuclear accidents have had an impact on the debate in Germany.

The analysis follows a historical structure which was proposed by Dr. Felix Christian Matthes (2000). He sections the history of nuclear power generation in Germany into four phases beginning with the ‘speculative phase’ from 1955 to 1967 which was marked by theorizing the use of nuclear power and the construction of Germany’s first atomic power plants. The second phase, the so-called ‘breakthrough phase’ is characterized by the expansion of the usage of nuclear power and deals with the years between 1967 and 1975. The ‘stagnation phase’ from 1975 to 1986 depicts the beginning of the debate on nuclear energy which particularly centered on safety issues. Matthes’ last phase, the ‘decline phase’ is marked by the impacts of the Chernobyl accident in 1986 and the renunciation of atomic energy by certain political parties and large parts of society. However, as Matthes’ work was published in 2000, his sectioning is to a certain extent outdated because it does not include the crucial developments from 2000 onwards. Therefore, this study adds three phases to Matthes’ structure. The phase from 1998 to 2009 will be named ‘political decline phase’. After the federal elections in 1998 the government changed to a coalition of SPD and the Green Party which agreed to phase-out nuclear energy which marks an historical point in the history of nuclear energy in Germany. The phase from 2009 to 2011 will be named ‘revival phase’. It is characterized by a change in government back to a coalition of CDU/CSU and the FDP and the revision of the phase-out plans of the SPD/Green Party coalition. The last phase constitutes the period from 2011 onwards. As stated before, the catastrophe in Fukushima led to the decision to ultimately end the usage of nuclear power plants in Germany by the end of 2022. With all five parties represented in the German Bundestag supporting the phase-out and a broad societal consensus on the topic, this phase probably marks the end of the usage of nuclear power and is there referred to as the ‘final phase’. It has to be emphasized that the boundaries of the phases are fluid and not always clearly distinguishable as political movements, citizen’s mobilization or decision-making processes do not stop at artificially created time period boundaries.

3.1. 1955-1967: The speculative phase

Due to the occupation statute of Germany, the German government was not allowed to take decisions on the construction of nuclear power plants or the peaceful usage of uranium before 1955.[2] After the formal ending of the statue on May 5, 1955 West-Germany regained the status of a sovereign state and was able to start its own nuclear power program (Corbach, 2005). Konrad Adenauer (CDU), the first Chancellor of Germany established the Federal Ministry for Atomic Issues in October 1955 and appointed Franz-Josef Strauß to be the first Federal Minister of Nuclear Energy. As Gleitsmann (2011) points out, the decision to start a nuclear power program has to be seen as an essential part of the German foreign, economic, scientific and sovereignty policy at that time because nearly all industrialized nations were developing own nuclear power programs. Already in 1953 President of the United States (U.S.) Eisenhower had campaigned for the usage of nuclear power with the ‘atomic power for peace program’ which triggered plenty of peaceful atomic programs (Eisenhower Presidential Library & Museum, 2011). With the construction of nuclear power plants in the Soviet Union in 1954 or England in 1955, nuclear power had become part of the industrialized countries’ energy strategy. Germany wanted to follow this path and start its own atomic power program.

The German government started its atomic efforts by institutionalizing the topic. Besides the founding of the Federal Ministry for Atomic Issues in 1955, a nuclear commission was set up in 1956 which was chaired by the Federal Minister of Nuclear Energy and was composed of representatives from the politics, economic and science sectors. The commission had an advisory function and was responsible for designing Germany’s first nuclear program. On the international level, Germany became one of the founding members of the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM) in 1957 which was set out to develop “relations with the other countries by creating the conditions necessary for the speedy establishment and growth of nuclear industries” (EURATOM Treaty, Article 1, 1957). Moreover, Germany also joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in the same year.

At the same time the German government pushed for scientific design and development of nuclear technologies and was eager to catch up with other industrialized nations as the country was perceived as a “latecomer in the nuclear competition” (Nelkin & Polak, 1980, p. 129). Therefore, the German state invested about 5.2 billion Deutsche Mark between 1957 and 1963 in order to recruit suitable nuclear scientists and engineers and to purchase five research reactors from the U.S. and England. The first research reactor started its operation in 1957 in Garching and was followed by a research reactor in Kahl 1961. The latter was the first nuclear power plant to be connected to the German electricity grid.

The founding years of nuclear energy were particularly supported by the economy which envisioned cheap electricity and the engineering industry which saw great potential for expansion in the nuclear power plant industry. However, the energy producers themselves were skeptical about the new technology as the fixed costs to enter nuclear power production had been relatively high and the profitability was perceived as uncertain from their point of view (Radkau, 1983). Thus, the energy producers remained in an observing position whereas the German government heavily invested in nuclear technologies in order to built and finance the foundation of Germany’s nuclear future. As one can see from this observation, the decision to create a nuclear industry and generate power by atomic power plants was heavily influenced by the German economy and the engineering industry. Moreover, the decision was based on political rather than economic considerations as the government was eager to be part of the system of industrialized countries which all started their own nuclear power programs.

Politically, the first phase in the history of nuclear power in Germany was marked by a broad consensus among the political elites and political parties. Of the three strongest parties, being the CDU/CSU, the FDP and the SPD, the first two had supported nuclear power from the very beginning and without restrains. The situation within the Social Democratic party had been more differentiated. The party was strongly opposing nuclear weapons and any plans to build, use or station them in Germany. The fear of the ‘atomic death’ which was triggered by the upcoming tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union collided with the first plans to peacefully use nuclear technology for energy production. Particularly the more leftist section of the SPD criticized nuclear technologies without differentiating between military usage and civilian usage for electrical power generation. However, the SPD quickly managed to find a common agreement on atomic energy. Already in July 1956, the party agreed on supporting nuclear technology for energy production and perceived the usage of the technology as a ‘new era for mankind’. Moreover, the SPD urged the government to catch up with other industrialized nations in the field of nuclear power in order not to become energy depended on these countries in the future (SPD, 1956). This development guaranteed the support of nuclear energy from the strongest parties in Germany during the speculative phase. Therefore, Rüdig (2007) emphasizes that the “German nuclear industry was allowed to develop virtually unhindered by any political opposition” (p. 49). Moreover, he stresses that political support as well as the priority status that was given to the nuclear industry had led to a privileged situation of proponents of nuclear power. They were able “to command resources and build up a nuclear sector that is still largely in place today” (ibid.). As a result of these observations, Rüdig concludes that decisions on nuclear energy were taken within “a closed community” (ibid.).

The closeness was fostered by public opinion on the topic as the public shared the optimism and euphoria regarding the new technology. Nuclear technology was praised to be a precursor for the ‘second industrial revolution’ (Brandt, 1957) which led the public to support the new technological sector. Only sporadically citizen’s protests against nuclear power plants were witnessed. The plans to construct a research reactor in Karlsruhe had to face the most severe opposition at that time. Citizens of the Karlsruhe region organized protests against the research reactor. They perceived the operation of the plant to be too risky in the region which is known to be one of the most seismic areas in Germany. However, the protests were regionally limited and did not evolve to a national movement (Gleitsmann, 2011).

Besides the strong advertising of the political parties, these observations can also be explained by the media which shared the opinion of the parties and criticized the protesters for being unprogressive and reactive. Gleitsmann (ibid.) emphasizes that the media coverage on the protesters was hardly focusing on the citizens’ concerns but portrayed them in a negative way calling them ‘querulous persons’. In limited cases the protesters were even depicted as backward farmers not willing to accept the beginning of a new technological era which shows that the media also used defaming pictures to portray the opponents. In particular local politicians as well as scientists shared this opinion as they could not understand the citizens’ refusal of the research reactor. In order to change the citizens’ minds, programs to inform and teach the protesters were set up which shows the willingness of the stakeholders supporting nuclear energy to push their plans through. However, information meetings and discussion forums did not change the opinion of the protester as they were still pointing at the risks of operating a nuclear power plant in a seismic area. According to Gleitsmann & Oetzel (2012), they only changed their opinion when the stakeholder supporting the research reactor pointed at the economic benefits. As the Karlsruhe area was lacking infrastructure and was therefore based on agricultural production, the people saw the construction of the research reactor as an opportunity for a more prosperous future of the region. Thus, the decision was to a great extend based on rational economic thinking.

Though this example of protests in the Karlsruhe region shows that not all citizens agreed with the plans and decisions on the usage of nuclear power, one has to point out that the great majority of the public supported the new technology and did not challenge the nuclear energy policies. Thereby, basically all important stakeholders formed a broad consensus on the topic. Besides the public, political parties, the media as well as the economy and engineering industry endorsed the beginning of Germany’s nuclear era which marks a distinctive feature of the first speculative phase.

3.2. 1967-1975: The breakthrough phase

According to Christian Schaaf (2002), the speculative phase ended with the start of the operation of the first commercial nuclear power plant in Gundremmingen. It was connected to the electricity grid in December 1967 and started its commercial operation in April 1967 (IAEA, 2012a). Schaaf emphasizes that the breakthrough phase shifted the interests of both the political elite and the industry. Whereas the speculative phase was characterized by setting up the foundations of nuclear power generation in the future, the breakthrough phase was marked by practical interests of the present. Radkau (1983) points out that the financial investments made during the speculative phase had led to a constriction of the decision-making options of politicians as the anticipated German nuclear era now had to become reality. Therefore, the extension of the nuclear power generation industry has to be seen as one of the most important points on the political agenda in Germany at that time. However, politicians as well as the nuclear power industry and the industries demanding cheap electricity such as the chemical and electronic industries, were facing a serious legitimacy problem. Germany’s overall electricity demand was not rising to the expected amounts that would have made nuclear power a profitable endeavor. Particularly the electricity producing companies referred to these calculations and still refused to invest in the nuclear energy sector.

Corbach (2005) as well as Radkau (1983) point out that the industry was eager to solve this problem by artificially raising the German electricity demand. Ever new electric home appliances for heating, cooking and entertainment were put on the market and had been advertized as necessities for every household. Political campaigns such as the ‘prosperity for everyone’ campaign by the CDU supported these plans. When looking at the development of the per capita energy consumption one is able to see that the energy consumption nearly doubled from 1967 to 1970. During the time period from 1967 to 1973 energy consumption increased by 117% with 1973 being the peak year of energy consumption (World Bank, 2012). These numbers show that the plan of the industry and the politicians to raise the energy demand had been quite successful and now served as a justification to build more nuclear power plants. However, one has to emphasize that the ambitions of the industry and politicians benefitted very much from the ‘economic miracle’ which led to a strengthening of the middle class and a more consumption-oriented society. Consequently, the time span between 1967 and 1975 witnessed the peak of nuclear power plant construction. In total, fourteen new plants were built during the nine years (IAEA, 2012b). Moreover, the energy producing industry finally agreed to make large scale investments in the nuclear sector which served as a signal for the breakthrough of nuclear power generation technology in Germany (Radkau, 1983).

Politically, the breakthrough phase was marked by changes in the coalition structures of the government. After the break-up of the coalition government formed by CDU/CSU and the FDP in 1966, the CDU/CSU formed a grand coalition with the Social Democrats. For the first time after the Second World War, the SPD was part of the Federal Government of Germany. During the time of the grand coalition, the SPD supported the plans for the extension of the nuclear sector. After the federal elections in 1969, Willy Brandt became the first German chancellor representing the Social Democratic Party. Forming a coalition government with the FDP, the SPD continued to support nuclear energy and took a leading role in the decision-making processes that led to the construction of the new nuclear power plants (Schaaf, 2002).

This became evident when the government brought forward its overall concept for energy policies. For the first time in history, an official energy program was presented. It entailed policies and production targets for each energy-producing sector. The outstanding characteristic of the program was the exceptional position of nuclear energy. The energy program demanded that within the next twelve years about one half of the national energy demand should be met by nuclear power. According to Joppke (1991) “nuclear power became a corner stone of the new policy of ‘economic modernization’” (p. 46) as energy was seen as a “magical panacea” (ibid.) to reboot the German economy which had cooled down in the beginning of the 1970s. Moreover, the government’s energy program emphasized that an extension of the nuclear sector would not only support the economy but would also guarantee Germany’s energy security. Analyses provided by government experts saw a great danger of becoming too dependent on oil as an energy source and thereby on foreign states. In order to minimize the risk of dependency, the energy program envisaged an increased energy production of 40.000 to 45.000 megawatt for the nuclear energy sector by 1985. Taking 1972 as the base year, this would have constituted an increase by thirty times of energy produced by atomic power plants. Besides the risk of energy dependency, the government argued that Germany would face an energy gap if the nuclear sector would not quickly expand. According to the calculations, Germany’s coal industry would reach its production maximum in the 1980s which could lead to gaps in energy supply (Deutscher Bundestag, 1973). Therefore, the coalition government saw nuclear power as an inevitable investment for the future of Germany.


[1] Italy had four nuclear power plants that were shut down following the Chernobyl accident. However, the Italian government under Berlusconi made plans to build new nuclear power plants. These plans were rejected in a public referendum which was held after the Fukushima catastrophe (World Nuclear Association, 2012a).

[2] The occupation statute of Germany regulated the authorities of the German government. The statue gave Germany conditional sovereignty but did not grant a complete control for sectors such as scientific research, the military or foreign affairs.

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Nuclear power in Germany - History and future prospects
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Nuclear power, Germany, Fukushima, Chernobyl, Kingdon, Multiple Stream Model, Atomausstieg, Energiewende, Tschernobyl, Policy making
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Tobias Henze (Author), 2012, Nuclear power in Germany - History and future prospects, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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