Questions & Answers

Did Germany overreact to Fukushima?

A few pro-nuclear countries did not fundamentally change their stance on nuclear after Fukushima, but Germany was actually in the majority. And its nuclear phase-out dates back to 2000, so the decision in 2011 represents a sudden change in Chancellor Merkel's position, not a fundamental change in general German opinion.

Germany's nuclear phase-out has been a long time in the making, but the government's decision to shut down eight nuclear plants in the week after the accident in Fukushima still came as a surprise. Overall, however, Germany has a strong political consensus in favor of phasing out nuclear. Since the first nuclear phase-out of 2000, the political discussion in Germany has not been about whether, but about how quickly the phase-out should proceed.

While some countries – such as the US, France, and Russia – did not fundamentally change their policy on nuclear in response to Fukushima, Chancellor Merkel's coalition did an abrupt about-face. In contrast, public sentiment did not change much; the general public in Germany was overwhelmingly in support of Chancellor Schroeder's nuclear phase-out from 2000, with 65 percent of those surveyed stating that they were in favor of it in April 2010 – at a time when newly reelected Chancellor Merkel had indicated she planned to roll back Schroeder's phase-out.

In the wake of the accident at Fukushima, German support for a nuclear phase-out "only" increased by six percentage points to 71 percent, not a great difference; in comparison, a poll taken in the United States nearly a year after Fukushima found that 41 percent of US adults thought the risks of nuclear outweighed its benefits, compared to 37 percent a year earlier – an increase of around ten percent in both cases.

But while the German public can hardly be accused of panicking, Chancellor Merkel certainly did. Had she merely continued the previous nuclear phase-out and decided to speed things up, the effects might not have been so detrimental, but she essentially reversed German energy policy twice within a single year. Two main factors were probably behind Merkel's sudden change of heart in 2011: upcoming elections in the German state of Baden-Württemberg, which Merkel's party lost, and strong anti-nuclear protests in the wake of Fukushima.

Countries against nuclear

Nor did Germany react more strongly than most other countries. To the north, Denmark already had a goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 when Fukushima happened. To the south, Italy – the world's seventh largest economy – had voted to be nuclear-free in a referendum in 1987, and when then-President Berlusconi attempted to change that policy in June 2011, the Italians managed to successfully conduct a referendum for the first time since 1995 by getting a majority of eligible voters to turn out. Of those who voted, more than 94 percent rejected Berlusconi's nuclear plans, and the event was a major reason for his political defeat a few months later.

In between Italy and Germany, Switzerland took modest steps to ensure that the country would be nuclear-free by 2034, and in 2012, Austria – which had resolved to remain nuclear-free way back in 1978 – went a step further by requiring its utilities to certify that they are not purchasing any nuclear power from abroad starting in 2015.

For a while, Belgium was repeatedly in the news for not having a government, but when it finally got one again, one of the first decisions made in October 2011 was to launch a nuclear phase-out starting in 2015. Germany is not alone in its nuclear position; it stands in the middle of a larger resistance movement.