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The Roots of German Nuclear Energy Skepticism

germany nuclear energy protestThe Washington, DC office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a think tank close to Germany’s Green party, recently concluded a series of short papers on Germany’s Energiewende (energy transition) which aims to explain what is going on with Germany’s energy policy, and why. The first installation of the series, Angst or Arithmetic?, by Paul Hockenos, a Berlin-based American writer and author of a well-received book on Joschka Fischer and the German green movement, is looking to put the German energy transition into perspective. The author is making the case that Germans are neither irrationally afraid of nuclear energy nor is the nuclear phase-out driven by “postwar angst”. Quite to the contrary, the author claims, Germany finds itself in the midst of other European nations such as Sweden, The Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland, all of which are phasing out nuclear as well. What does make Germany’s energy transition unique in the author’s eyes, however, is the fact that the country is aiming to phase-out nuclear while maintaining its status as an industrial heavyweight and meeting ambitious decarbonization goals.

To make his point, Hockenos skillfully lays out the development of the anti-nuclear protest movement in Germany, starting with demonstrations in the early 1970s in Wyhl, where conservative farmers were joined by conservationists and left-wing environmentalists to force a powerful utility company to cancel plans for a nuclear power station. This headline-making success catapulted the movement to national prominence and consequently helped to form its national footprint. Decisive then, in Hockenos’ eyes, was the fact that experts, some from Germany’s nuclear industry, like Klaus Traube, joined the movement to create a fact-based approach which was, if you want, political education based on liberal enlightenment ideas. These experts published widely read bestsellers and also formed think tanks, such as Öko-Institut, or Institute for Applied Ecology, which still exists today. Finally, Chernobyl, which almost created mass hysteria, with closed playgrounds, destroyed produce, and kids and pregnant women ordered to stay inside, made the risks of nuclear energy obvious to everyone. The author concludes that the nuclear phase-out is not “the reaction of a spooked people to Fukushima” but that it “has arguably been part of Berlin’s energy agenda since the early 1990s.”

While the historical facts are correct, it strikes me that the initial question is only superficially answered, if at all. Hockenos is certainly right when he claims that the German anti-nuclear movement was well entrenched in Berlin’s political class, if not hegemonic, before the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Just think of the first Atomausstieg (nuclear phase-out), which the Schröder-Fischer government (“red-green” coalition) negotiated with the nuclear power utilities in 2000 and which became law in 2002. But he fails to address the question, why this was the case. Here are three factors which I believe need to be taken into consideration:

Firstly, Germany’s anti-nuclear movement is, to a large extent, a not-in-my-backyard coalition which prima facie is interested in (a certain understanding of) the good life, here and now, but does not necessarily act politically responsibly. Hockenos provides great insights in the local roots of the movement and its broad coalitions, from Wyhl to Gorleben (which was long planned to be the permanent repository site for nuclear waste), but fails to analyze this critically. I would argue that a small group of anti-nuclear protesters, mostly academically educated activists from urban areas with experience in previous protests (using tactics they learned from the American civil rights movement), used the protective instincts of conservative local groups and skillfully turned this into a movement. The nuclear power plant was not supposed to be built here. This legacy still resonates when, today, local “green” groups protest against desperately needed grid extensions to transport wind power from the North to the South because they literally do not what the pylons in their backyard. Politically, this is obviously not very satisfying, because it does not provide a solution to the problem but only criticism. (Arguably, the national leadership of Germany’s Green party is aware of this now and addresses this critically and responsibly.)

Secondly, the German perception of nuclear energy can only be understood in the context of the cold war and the fear of nuclear annihilation. This fear proliferated in Germany from the 1970s onwards and culminated in the Friedensdemonstration, or peace demonstration, in Bonn, the old governmental seat of West Germany, in 1982. Roughly half a million citizens protested NATOs “double-track decision” and, more broadly, American nuclear weapons on German soil. While the history of the so called Friedensbewegung, or peace movement, is complex, it is fair to say that is built on 1950s protest against German rearmament, 1960s radicalism and criticism of the Vietnam war, as well as specifically German ideas of a “third way” between Russian communism and American capitalism which have a long intellectual genealogy in Germany and which gained momentum in the 1970s. The German anti-nuclear movement is intimately linked to the peace movement, and managed to link the public’s fear of nuclear annihilation with questions about the civil use of nuclear energy. So when German’s think nuclear, they think death. I am not so sure that this is rational, even while I may have the same thoughts, as I am a (German) child of my time.

Finally, Hockenos fails to address the German Technikskepsis, or skepticism of technology, which is deeply rooted in the country’s political culture and crucial to understand the German debate on nuclear energy. While Germany has a globally renowned engineering expertise, there is also a long intellectual history of fearing the (unintended) consequences of widespread use of technologies. Note that the German term Technik only inaccurately translates into the English word technology. Technik it is much closer to the Greek τεχνικός (technikós) which includes human systems, and is distinct from the German Technologie, a distinction that is absent in the English language. Technikskepsis, again, is a complex matter, and while this blog-post cannot adequately spell out its genealogy, it is worth noting that it has roots in Martin Heidegger’s philosophy from where it spread to political ideas on the left with Herbert Marcuse, a student of Heidegger who later joined the legendary Institute for Social Research. It’s most influential rendition is arguably Hans Jonas’ The Imperative of Responsibility (Das Prinzip Verantwortung, German 1979, English 1984) which lays out an ethical principle for the age of technology: “Act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life.” And this imperative, of course, is precisely what the critics claim nuclear energy cannot meet. If, and how, these ideas are compatible with a sustainable energy transition in Germany is a different question which I will address in another blog post.

For now it suffices to conclude that Hockenos short analysis is a great start of what should be a much bigger project: to bare the roots of the German anti-nuclear movement and the Energiewende.

Sebastian Schwark's picture

Thank Sebastian for the Post!

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Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Apr 16, 2013 2:32 pm GMT

A refreshingly human perspective.

My daughter lives in England where the anti-Thatcher yell-a-thon is competing with the memorials. People who lived through the cold war and saw its peaceful conclusion have an entirely different political perspective than those who seem not to understand.

The politics of evaporating cities with nuclear power after the devastation of WWII transformed many societies. The engineers tell us it is a dumb idea to be in control of our needs. Maybe, but maybe not.


Joey Ortiz's picture
Joey Ortiz on Apr 17, 2013 5:05 pm GMT

So when German’s think nuclear, they think death. I am not so sure that this is rational, even while I may have the same thoughts, as I am a (German) child of my time.”

The author is making the case that Germans are neither irrationally afraid of nuclear energy nor is the nuclear phase-out driven by “postwar angst”

Ok, so I guess I’m confused about what “irrationally afraid” means…I would define it as an overestimation of the risks associated with nuclear energy. Either the people who claim germans are rational are themselves irrationally afraid of nuclear energy, or…what? Isn’t that the only possibility? I mean quantitatively, the fact that nobody died at Fulushima, the deaths from Chernobyl were in the few-handfuls, and the deaths from Three-Mile-Island were, again, zero, should lead a rational person to believe a trillion-dollar-nuclear-phase out that actually increases electricity price as well as CO2 production is … what… rational? Are you kidding me? Its blatantly obvious that Germans are, in fact, acting completely irrationally and irresponsibly. Their industries will almost certainly crumble from the innevitable surges in oil, gas, coal, and carbon prices, and the effect will permiate through the entire German economy. The “rationally afraid” people are digging their country into a physics-induced-hole. Its energy people, its not up to vote. Its physics.

The other day I was out to lunch with a cousin, telling her my career plan to design nuclear reactors, to which she asked “for war?” The public does not have the scientific capacity to annalyze risks in any objective way. In general, when they are afraid of something, it is almost always irrational. And when it has the word “nuclear” in it, you can safely assume that the average person will overestimate risks associated with nuclear power by a factor of a million, or more.

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