Germany’s nuclear endgame: the lessons

The historic decision by Germany’s government to end the country’s nuclear-energy programme is owed to the enduring vitality of the anti-nuclear movement. Paul Hockenos maps the implications for the rest of the world. 

Germany’s anti-nuclear movement is the poster-boy of its kind in Europe, even worldwide. Over the course of nearly forty years this potent, enduring campaign swayed German public opinion decisively against nuclear power. In June 2011, Germany became the first industrialised nation to commit to abandoning the atom as an energy source once and for all by 2022 - a move unthinkable without the unremitting pressure of Germany’s tenacious anti-nukes movement.

The reactor meltdowns in Fukushima, Japan, following the tsunami of March 2011 forced the German government’s hand; but it was the popular distrust and solid arguments against nuclear technology that left chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative administration with no alternative but to abruptly reverse itself, and pledge to a future based on renewable sources.

By late spring 2011, anti-nuclear activists had convinced the overwhelming majority of Germans and the bulk of the political establishment - finally, even conservatives - of three major points. First, nuclear energy is unsafe. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now Fukushima (as well as hundreds of smaller incidents) have confirmed beyond any doubt that the risks inherent in atomic-energy production are real and lethal. Second, there is not now, nor will there ever be, a solution to the problem of nuclear-waste storage. Third, the time of renewable-alternative energies has at last arrived - and nations that ignore it will miss out not only on clean, abundant sources of energy, but will also deprive their economies of profits and jobs.

All these points are applicable everywhere there are nuclear plants. In this sense, perhaps Germany’s groundbreaking shift is a harbinger of a nuclear-free world, one that simultaneously battles climate change and powers its factories with alternative sources. If Germany can do it, so can others, including the United States and China. But that will require more than merely following the German example. For Berlin’s plan to scrap nuclear power was a direct consequence of the efforts of the anti-nuke movement - and at present no other nation has anything comparable to it. In this sense its track record and best practices are vitally instructive for opponents of atomic technology everywhere.  

The spirit of Wyhl

There have been in broad terms seven vital elements in the German anti-nuclear movement’s potency and endurance. The first is that from the outset the campaign was decentralised and rooted in local, grassroots opposition. The earliest anti-nuclear protests coalesced in West Germany’s southwestern-most corner in the early 1970s. As reactors began to crop up in rural locations across Germany, so local inhabitants - resident farmers, church pastors, educators, and parent groups - began to look more closely at this supposed miracle technology plunked in their backyards without their say.

An example is a reactor intended for the hamlet of Wyhl, which lay between the progressive college town of Freiburg and France’s fertile Alsace region. The conservative, church-going community had tended vineyards and pressed grapes for centuries. Now they saw their livelihoods endangered by the towers. By 1975, over fifty locally organised citizens’ initiatives had emerged around Wyhl, and in neighbouring towns in France and Switzerland, to protest the reactor’s construction. As word of the rising resistance got out, the grape-growers were joined by students and left-wing faculty from Freiburg’s university. The mobilisation at Wyhl thus radiated from the central core of the local people rather than being imported from the elsewhere.

The second element is non-violent civil disobedience. The precedent here was set at Wyhl in February 1975, when demonstrators stormed and occupied the construction site. The troupe improvised a makeshift camp complete with communal kitchens, teach-ins, and direct democracy. In the end, the energy giant Badenwerk and the local authorities caved in, postponing construction indefinitely. The Wyhl insurgents had achieved a double success: challenging their vastly more powerful opponents, and creating a model for the anti-nuclear movement.    

The locally rooted, bottom-up character of the movement is still clearly evident in Germany’s more recent demonstrations, even when they attract as many as 250,000 protestors. This has been central to sustaining the momentum even through difficult years, such as the period of the “red-green” government (1998-2005) when the Social Democrat and Green coalition partners were negotiating a phasing out of nuclear power. The government eventually compromised by deciding to wind down nuclear power gradually over twenty-one years; this was sharply criticised by anti-nuke protesters, yet efforts to mobilise activists became much harder.

But activists continued to push the case, whose third element was to emphasise an issue that won’t disappear until the last reactor is closed: that there’s no solution for nuclear waste. The protests that continued, such as those at the Gorleben waste-storage site in northern Germany along the Elbe river, were sustained by local NGOs and the farmers of Gorleben. Nationwide groups, like x-tausendmal quer and Campact, focused their efforts on helping the Gorleben community to block - or at least delay - the incoming deliveries to Germany’s single repository.

The spirit of Wyhl also lives on in the movement’s fourth element, its un-ideological diversity. Germany’s urban leftists found at Wyhl common ground beyond their own ranks. “This diversity was - and still is - so important because it made it impossible for politicians and the energy lobbies to label the protestors as crazy, left-wing agitators”, explains Dieter Rucht, Germany’s leading expert on social movements. “They had to be taken seriously because they were the conservatives’ own constituency, upstanding folk with jobs and families who voted Christian Democrat.” For four decades, a single, familiar icon and message unified the anti-nuke movement: the smiling, red sun against a yellow background with the simple but powerful message - Atomkraft? Nein Danke! (Nuclear Power? No thank you!)

The green answer

In the wake of the victory in Wyhl, the anti-nuclear movement mushroomed across the country, its fiercest pockets of activism in out-of-the-way places with names like Kalkar, Brokdorf, Grohnde, and Neckarwestheim, where nuclear facilities were stationed or planned. Yet even though many demonstrations in the late 1970s gathered more than 100,000 - and were boosted enormously by the Three Mile Island disaster in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1979 - activists were unable to follow up on their success in Wyhl with similar victories. True, legal contests that cost the power companies millions of Deutschmarks; but the reactors hummed along, and Germany’s three main political parties backed nuclear power, including most of chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s ruling Social Democrats.

The answer to this stalemate was the Green Party, initially a hodge-podge of social-movement activists voicing their concerns in town and state legislatures. The fifth element is that the Greens wrote “no nukes” prominently on their banners and fought fiercely to advance the cause, from tiny village councils to the Bundestag in Bonn and the European parliament in Brussels. The Social Democrats and other parties eventually came around to their arguments, but the Greens were the pioneers.

The sixth element is that the Greens both represented the movement in legislatures and provided infrastructure and crucial logistical support, such as offices and copy-machines and access to nationwide public relations. Petra Kelly, one of the first Greens elected to the Bundestag, was prominent among those who gave the movement a recognisable face and even enabled it to reach across national borders and speak to an international audience, including in the United States. The anti-nuclear movement and the Greens, however, were never identical.

When the Greens entered national government for the first time in 1998, the majority of Germans were opposed to nuclear energy. The best the Greens could secure in discussion with their Social Democrat coalition partners was a phasing out of nuclear energy. The Green leaders promised that neither future governments nor the power companies could backtrack on the agreement; it was, they claimed, as good as written in stone. The Greens might even have believed this - but they were wrong.

By the time the Greens left power in 2005, the anti-nuke campaign had been laid low. With the conservatives’ return to power, the muscular energy lobbies of southern German were scoring points by arguing that nuclear energy was the answer to climate change. They claimed that Germany needed its own nuclear-power industry to avoid dependence on France’s nuclear energy and Russia’s gas. The renaissance of nuclear power in the United States and China seemed to reinforce them.   

The power of no

But the movement had a potent new asset. This was delivered by the law the Greens had pushed through in office, offering subsidies and tax-breaks to consumers and producers of renewable energies. The outcome was a booming cottage industry around solar-panels and wind-turbines, which added nearly 400,000 jobs to the German economy and transformed Germany into a leading exporter of alternative-energy technology.  

This entirely new approach was founded on the seventh element, the Greens’ and the movement’s forceful “argument that renewable energies translated into ‘green jobs’” (in the description of Sascha Müller-Kraenner, the Berlin-based Europe representative of the United States group, the Nature Conservancy). This line of attack was so convincing, notes Müller-Kraenner, that it even won over many Christian Democrats.

The eighth element of the movement was a new generation of activists in its fold, with organisations that reflected their diversity. Campact, for example, is based on the advocacy group MoveOn, which activists like Christoph Bautz had visited in the United States. “We were fascinated by the way they could mobilise people so quickly with the internet”, says Bautz. Campact has a 490,000-address email list that enables it to put together demonstrations like the one in Fukushima’s aftermath in a week’s time. It is also a platform for people to be engaged via the internet, through mass petitions, email campaigns, and blogs.

The nationwide group Ausgestrahlt focuses on supporting the network of smaller, local groups across the country with campaigning materials and ideas, enabling them with more clout. X-tausendmal quer specialises in blockades of nuclear-waste transports; another Gorleben-based group, Castor Shottern, takes civil disobedience a step further by sabotaging the railway tracks along which the waste transports run.

Germany’s scrapping of nuclear power was unthinkable without the pressure and persistence of the anti-nuke campaign. In other countries, the place to begin this rebellion is not at the top, but from below, like the Germans, in those localities directly affected by nuclear-power plants and waste-storage dumps. Until they say Nein Danke! to the power plants in their backyards, there’ll be no convincing anyone else. 

About the author

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. He is editor of Internationale Politik-Global Edition and senior fellow of the World Policy Institute. He is the author of Free to Hate: The Rise of the Right in Post-Communist Eastern Europe (Routledge, 1993); Homeland Calling: Exile Patriotism and the Balkan Wars (Cornell University Press, 2003); and Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany (Oxford University Press, 2008). His website is here

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Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. He is editor of Internationale Politik-Global Edition and senior fellow of the World Policy Institute. He is the author of Free to Hate: The Rise of the Right in Post-Communist Eastern Europe (Routledge, 1993); Homeland Calling: Exile Patriotism and the Balkan Wars (Cornell University Press, 2003); and Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany (Oxford University Press, 2008). His website is here

Also by Paul Hockenos in openDemocracy:

"Kosovo's contested future" (16 November 2007)

"The 1968 debate in Germany" (2 May 2008)