Why didn’t Germany have a coal phaseout?

Why was a nuclear phaseout easier than a coal phaseout in Germany? This is one of the most frequently asked questions we hear. Craig Morris has an answer about the historic reasons – and it’s not what you’re expecting. For the potential of a future coal phaseout, he has co-authored a new study.


The terraced farmland of Kaiserstuhl near the Black Forest just a few minutes from Wyhl, where the grassroots Energiewende movement began in the 1970s. (Photo: Craig Morris)

Most people both inside and outside Germany will tell you there’s one main reason for the German nuclear phaseout: angst. But let’s go back to the 1970s, when the Energiewende began as a protest against plans to build a new nuclear plant in southwest Germany.

In my documentary “Welcome to the Energiewende” made last year, I visit the village where the protest began. At an awards ceremony, they talked about their motivations, none of which were related to nuclear risk. Rather, they did not want to be pushed around by corporations.

Far from having an irrational fear of something safe, these people put their lives on the line in protest against a police force ordered to become brutal.

The first protesters were local farmers, pharmacists, etc. They lived in an area without industry. Politicians told them that the nuclear plant would bring in other large industry (such as a giant lead production plant) and jobs. Locals told the government that they already had jobs and didn’t want their landscape marred by ugly industrial complexes.

In other words, nuclear power plants were proposed in places where people were not used to such structures. These projects were perceived as a massive intrusion. People wanted to protect their idyllic communities. As you can see from the photo above taken in May, they succeeded.

Now consider the more organic development of coal mining. Cities near coal mines in the Ruhr Area – Duisburg, Essen, Dortmund, Bochum, etc. – start off as independent small towns as recently as 1800. German electricity supply grew with coal power. In the 1960s, people did not hang clothes up to dry outside in the Ruhr Area because the clothes would have been dirty before they got dry. People associated it with inexpensive energy and progress. And in an age when tobacco was smoked everywhere, who would mind smoke from coal?

Likewise, in the 1960s the German public was unconcerned about the risk of radioactivity, as the case of the Black Forest village of Menzenschwand – just 40 minutes from Wyhl – reveals. There, uranium was to be mined, but historian Joachim Radkau was unable to find any evidence of concern about the risks of radioactivity. Quite the contrary, in his book “Aufstieg und Fall der deutschen Atomwirtschaft” (Rise and fall of the German nuclear industry) Radkau documents how locals wanted to open up a radioactive spa to attract tourists.

He says fear does not explain the evolution of German opposition to nuclear power at all:

Jokes about an alleged German “angst” – for decades, standard fare when critics ridicule the anti-nuclear movement – are ignorant of history… In the beginning [before Chernobyl, CM], the focus was on providing information, not spreading fear.

After Chernobyl, Radkau writes, “the rejection of nuclear power became a majority opinion, even among engineers…. experts had always been quietly skeptical.”

In a recent article at German weekly Die Zeit, Radkau gives an example of this skepticism. Heinrich Schöller, CEO of German power giant RWE from 1945-1961, rejected nuclear in 1957, saying that disposing of nuclear waste would be as expensive as nuclear power “for the time being.” Nonetheless, he later headed a major nuclear research institute in Karlsruhe, where he directed construction of a test reactor in the 60s. Radkau quotes his change of heart thus: “if the government wants to do something stupid by building nuclear plants too soon, then we might as well do these stupid things ourselves so we can keep them under control.”

Fear of nuclear only became a major issue after Chernobyl, but at that time no nuclear phaseout could be considered because climate change had already become an issue – relying more on coal was not an option, and renewables were not yet on the radar. By 2000, renewables had become a feasible option, and the Renewable Energy Act was adopted; Germany’s nuclear phaseout was first implemented in 2002.

So the driving force was not fear. It was courageous citizens who refused to let corporations meddle with their communities. We still see the grassroots aspect of this movement, in which citizens make up roughly half of investments in renewables, compared to the Big Four utilities’ small share of around six percent. Nuclear was initially perceived as an artificial imposition on communities, whereas coal grew with nearby communities.

Finally, it’s worth keeping in mind that Germany remains wedded to coal because it has the largest lignite reserves in the world. France went nuclear because it lacked coal resources. But whenever they could, the French took German coal, such as when they occupied German coal mines massively after World War I and II. And in 2013, France was the second-biggest buyer of German coal power after the Netherlands. No country with inexpensive coal has ever left it in the ground.

Above, we discuss the historical reasons why Germany did not have a coal phaseout. To see what obstacles exist for the future, read the report The German Coal Conundrum: The status of coal power in Germany’s energy transition written by Arne Jungjohann and Craig Morris. All graphics can be downloaded here. Graphics by Thomas Gerke.

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of German Energy Transition. He directs Petite Planète and writes every workday for Renewables International


Craig Morris (@PPchef) is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende.

1 Comment

  1. Vivi says

    Well, there may have been no talk of a phase-out after Chernobyl, but the fact remains that the last German nuclear power plant went online in 1989, which considering the planning time for these things, tells me that there have been no successful commissions since that disaster. Probably because it would have been political suicide in West Germany for a local politician to agree to have a nuclear plant sited near his voting public with the memory of the disaster still fresh in people’s minds, and because East Germany couldn’t afford big expenses like that anymore in the late 1980s. (The fallout cloud from Chernobyl was kept a secret by the state in the GDR – people still found out, of course, but only through West German media.) So, since nuclear plants have a limited running time, their days in Germany have been numbered ever since Chernobyl. The current phase-out is just about shutting some of them down sooner than strictly necessary, to be on the safe side, instead of prolonging the running time beyond what the original builders designed the machinery and spent fuel pool capacity for, like the US is doing.

    I’d also say one of the biggest reasons why a coal phase-out has more difficulty gaining support among the general public here is that coal mining still is an important job source in some economically depressed areas (especially in the East), and the coal mining union does still have quite a lot of political clout, at least within the ranks of the SPD and even the Linke. So in this case, they aren’t playing their traditional role of opposition to the big business interests that are presented by the CDU. On the other hand, the few jobs that are provided by nuclear plants are economically negligible, so the general public doesn’t have much skin in the game there and only ones to lose out on the nuclear phase-out are the corporations. (And isn’t it just 2 of the Big Four that actually own any nuclear plants or am I getting that mixed up with lignite plants?)

    You’re right to point out the reason for France’s reliance on nuclear power. I never quite understood why they had invested in such a high number of nuclear plants (given that those are bad at adapting output to demand and force them to import expensive extra electricity in winter), until I saw a graphic showing what fossil fuels each European country has domestically available. And for France, as the only major economy in the world, that’s zilch. No coal, no gas, no oil in their ocean territory. A real eye-opener. I’d always been under the impression that they do have some coal on the French side of border near the Ruhr area – after all, they did win WWI and WWII, and wasn’t Alsace-Lorraine and its coal reserves what all these wars between France and Germany were about for the last two centuries? But apparently, that coal has run out quite some time ago, so nuclear was their only way of getting electricity without huge imports dragging down their trade balance. (Though do they still have domestic uranium today? I’ve read that 98% of the uranium used by European nuclear plants has to be imported from outside the EU, but I don’t know for France specifically.)

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