History of the Energiewende

Chernobyl – change comes slowly

In 1986, the reactor in Chernobyl exploded, and radioactive rain fell on Germany. The Germans lost their faith in the safety of nuclear power, but did not know yet how to replace it.

In 1986, the reactor in Chernobyl (Ukraine) exploded, and radioactivity detectors across Europe began registering spikes in ambient radiation levels; the Soviet Union initially did not announce the accident. Germans heard on the radio that it was not safe for children to play outside. Public trust in the safety of nuclear reactors reached all-time lows, though German engineers and politicians continued to assure everyone that Chernobyl was a fluke – the result of obviously inferior Soviet technology. Over the years, German engineers and politicians repeatedly claimed that German nuclear plants are safe and that no such accident as in Chernobyl is even possible in Germany – a claim made by Chancellor Merkel's coalition as recently as August 2010, less than a year before Fukushima changed her mind.

Still, the question in 1986 was how to replace nuclear power. Since the publication of Energiewende in 1980, nothing had really changed in Germany. Solar power was still so expensive that it was mainly only used by NASA in outer space and to provide small amounts of power in areas with no grid connections. And while wind power did get off to a big start in the early 1980s, when California already got one percent of its electricity from wind turbines, policy changes during the Reagan administration led the market to collapse. In the late 1980s, only Denmark was still expanding wind power at a considerable extent; Danish turbine manufacturers had been among the main suppliers to those first California projects.