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Why Germany is Dumping Nuclear Power, and Britain Isn't

Philip Johnstone, University of Sussex and Andy Stirling, University of Sussex

The starkly differing nuclear policies of Germany and the UK present perhaps the clearest divergence in developed world energy strategies. Under the current major Energy Transition (Energiewende), Germany is seeking to entirely phase out nuclear power by 2022. Yet the UK has for many years advocated a “nuclear renaissance”, promoting the most ambitious new nuclear construction programme in Western Europe. A close look at what’s happening makes the contrast look very odd indeed.

Nowhere is that difference more obvious than in the impending decision of British energy minister Amber Rudd, over arguably the most expensive single infrastructure project in British history: the Hinkley Point C power station.

Both nuclear and renewables offer low carbon strategies. But the performance of renewable energy is now manifestly superior to nuclear power and continuing to improve. The position of nuclear power, by contrast, is rapidly declining worldwide. In 2013, new global investments in renewable electricity capacity overtook those in all fossil fuels combined. So, why does UK policy making and public debate on these issues remain so distinctively biased towards nuclear?

“Who says?”

Recent research at SPRU has investigated a key aspect of this conundrum. It began with a simple yet fundamental question: how to understand these massively contrasting developments in the two such otherwise similar countries as the UK and Germany? There is no shortage of academic theory about why particular technologies are developed and others abandoned, but these turn out to be interestingly incomplete.

What is clear at the outset, is that technological progress in any given sector – like electricity – is not a one-track “race to the future”. In these simplistic terms, so-called pro-innovation policies reduce the debate to the level of “how fast?”, “what’s the risk?”; and “who’s leading?”. Instead, general understandings developed across history, economics, philosophy and social science show the real questions are about “which way?”; “who says?”; and “why?” Technological choices like those for and against nuclear power are as much a matter for democracy as for technical expertise. In other words, these should be treated as openly as other political issues, to be decided in ways that are responsible, open and transparent. To deal with such issues democratically also means that decisions are accountable to all those who stand to be affected and in whose name they have been taken.

The Isar II nuclear plant in Bavaria, Germany. brewbooks, CC BY-SA

But specific theories about how to achieve such technological transitions, do not tend to emphasise this democratic aspect. Highlighted instead are ways to encourage technological niches (like renewables) and how to stabilise these into an updated regime, in this case existing electricity systems. Until recently, less attention has been given to the roles played by deliberate efforts to discontinue an entrenched old regime, which (like the German nuclear industry) it is the aim of government to replace.

So what we get instead of a public debate is a host of much more detailed technical policy interventions in areas such as regulation, research, subsidies, market structure, contracts and training. This tends to lead only to incremental and conservative adjustments rather than ambitious transformation.

The German Alternative

To investigate these dilemmas, we considered thirty different parameters variously mentioned across all the different theories, to see which ones best explained the contrasting directions of policy in the UK and Germany. We grouped these into nine broadly relevant criteria addressing issues like: general market conditions; nuclear contributions to electricity mixes; strengths in nuclear engineering; costs and potential of renewables; strengths in renewable industries; scales of military nuclear interests; general political characteristics; public opinion and social movements; and contrasts in overall “qualities of democracy” (as measured in a burgeoning field of political science).

Some findings seem potentially quite important, and in direct practical ways for nuclear policy. In short, the criteria wrongly predict that it would be the UK, rather than Germany, which should be more likely to steer electricity systems away from nuclear power. After all, before the Energiewende, it was the UK that had: a relatively weak civil nuclear industry; a low nuclear fraction in the electricity mix; the best renewable energy resources; and a strong offshore industry that might gain from the harnessing renewables.

German activists at a rally to support energy policy changes. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Until recently, Germany hosted the most successful nuclear engineering industry in the world. It had a high proportion of its electricity from nuclear and the more statist German style of capitalism is also more favourable to nuclear (with its need for government support). Patterns of public opinion have long been pretty similar in the two countries. All those criteria conventionally emphasised in mainstream theory predict the opposite of the observed pattern.

In fact, only two criteria clearly predict a move in Germany rather than the UK. Firsstrong UK military nuclear interests and the unanimous verdict in the political science literature, that Germany ranks markedly higher than the UK in terms of key “qualities of democracy” like those mentioned above. But these broader political qualities – including transparency, participation and accountability – are excluded from normal policy analysis in this field.


It is remarkable that military implications remain virtually unmentioned not only in official UK nuclear policy documents, but in wider media and even critical debate. If this is a factor in the internationally unusual British enthusiasm for nuclear power, then this public silence itself raises issues of democratic accountability. We investigate this issue in a recent separate article.

Amber Rudd at tidal energy project. Department of Energy and Climate Change, CC BY-ND

But whatever might be this specific military dimension, the key message from our analysis is very clear. It is extraordinarily difficult to understand why Germany rather than the UK should be moving away from nuclear power, without being drawn to the relative qualities of democracy in the two countries. Whether this is right or wrong, it is very significant that it is Germany that has been able to mount an effective challenge to the concentrated power and entrenched interests around nuclear energy. Also perhaps relevant, is the fact that Germany has a track record of consistently making these kinds of enlightened decision earlier than the UK (on issues like acid rain, pesticides, recycling and clean production) – whilst remaining arguably the world’s most successful industrial economy.

So the practical message seems quite profound. General British debates over directions for innovation – around nuclear energy as in other areas like GMOs – are presently not primarily seen as matters for democracy; in effect they are not deemed suitable for public debate. Yet the troubled history of nuclear power itself – as with other technological issues like asbestos, phthalidomide and chemical pollution – shows how accountabilities neglected earlier, have a habit of being strongly asserted later. Perhaps this is something Amber Rudd might bear in mind, when making her impending momentous decision on Hinkley Point.

Philip Johnstone, Research Fellow, SPRU, University of Sussex and Andy Stirling, Professor of Science & Technology Policy, SPRU and co-director of the ESRC STEPS Centre, University of Sussex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Paul O's picture
Paul O on September 9, 2015

Is this article is about energy, or is it an Anti-Nuclear propaganda?

Unless I am missing something I am still not sure that the author has said anything substantial as to why Germany is dumping Nuclear power while Britain is not


1) The article makes no mention of how Germany is using it’s neighbor’s grids to balance excess Solar aka “Exports”.

2) Or how Germany relies on Nuclear power from it’s neighbors “Imports”

3) It convieniently Lumps Nuclear and Fossil fuels together, , thereby obfuscating whether Nuclear power continues to rise in cost or not.

I think the reason Germany is dumping Nuclear power while Britain is not is simple, the anti-nuclear green have a lot of German people scared far beyond what is warranted.

wind smith's picture
wind smith on September 9, 2015

” I think the reason Germany is dumping Nuclear power while Britain is not is simple, the anti-nuclear green have a lot of German people scared far beyond what is warranted.”

As you say above, seems that was the whole point of the article, that German democratic action is why the decision was made. The Green party may not have been a majority, but just like gun control in the US which is supported by 80 to 90% of voters, the minority NRA lobby, because of their passion around the issue, controls the politics.  

Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on September 9, 2015

It’s rather disappointing that otherwise intelligent academics can gaze at an issue for a long time, and only tangentially glimpse a truth that is so utterly obvious to everyone else. The reason Germany is abandoning nukes and Britain is embracing them is 100% due to differing governmental policies. There are no market forces at work, no engineering expertise underlayment, no massive differences in democratic systems, no shadowy military fingers in the pie. This is govermental policy, pure and simple. When Germany creates a feed-in tariff that massively subsidizes new solar and wind, while at the same time massively taxes nuclear, the result is completely predictable and shouldn’t surprise anyone.

It’s rather disappointing that this article is so poorly sourced. For example, the authors claim that “the performance of renewable energy is now manifestly superior to nuclear power” and link to a German government website that does not contain a single datum to support that claim. And that is even leaving aside the (rather important) issue of whether a government-run website should be expected to be neutral on the question of the wisdom of government policy. For another example, the authors claim that “the position of nuclear power is rapidly declining worldwide”, and link to non-peer-reviewed gray literature published by anti-nuke green groups. One has wonder if the UAE, China, and South Korea, which are all increasing nuclear power rapdily, are no longer part of the world. One also has to wonder: is the authors’ intent to simply write political propaganda thinly disguised with an academic figleaf?

That question is answered affirmatively when we read that Germany’s decision to abandon nuclear power was, apparently, “enlightened”. With the global climate crisis threatening the very roots of civilzation itself, one would have thought that an enlightened decision would be to attack the problem, which is fossil fuels, instead of attacking one of the solutions. But when the authors stoop to comparing nuclear power to thalidomide, you know that all remaining semblance of objectivity has been thrown out the window. 

All in all, a shabby performance by authors who could have done better, and should have known better.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on September 9, 2015

please delete

Paul O's picture
Paul O on September 9, 2015

I would not have had a beef if she had simply said something like this: Hi folks, I am an anti-nuke, and  we in Germany dumped nuclear power just because.

All I see here is another anti-nuke renewable-ist doing what they do, that is presenting the facts in such a way as to make energiewende better and more palatable than it actually is while ignoring its flaws.


Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on September 10, 2015

This analysis is flawed because it is based on mistaken assumptions.

1. It states that the performance of renewables is superior to nuclear power. This is unsupportable. Renewables are far more expensive than nuclear, yet they only work when the weather allows it, making them useful only as (expensive) fuel saving devices. But they cannot provide power reliably like nuclear can. Hence, nuclear is clearly far superior, both in terms of cost and in terms of reliability.

2. It assumes as given that shutting down a fleet of world-class nuclear power plants like Germany has done is an example of ‘enlightened policy’. That, in an age of rampant greenhouse gas emissions growth. It is unsupportable that shutting down nuclear power plants for no other reason than politics is ‘enlightened’. Virtually no-one agrees with this, not even most serious environmentalists (except antinuclear environmentalists, of course, but they are clearly insane).

3. It implies that using nuclear power is a symptom of some kind of lower-quality democracy, but does not explain why.

4. It has not commented on the ‘troubled history’ of Germany’s original architect of it’s nuclear phaseout, ex-chancellor Gerhard Schroder, whose first job after leaving office was to take a top job working for the Russian natural gas industry, bringing massive amounts of Russian natural gas to Germany and Europe. It is possible that the rabid antinuclearism in Germany is an astroturf development funded and supported by Russian interests. This has not been addressed in the study as a factor, though it appears to be well worth looking into more closely.

Mika Reichel's picture
Mika Reichel on September 10, 2015

Germany’s energy policy is governed by fair and fair is often irrational. It is well known that numerous studies have shown that coal power is much more dangerous compared to nuclear power. This is even true in Chernobyl. If Chernobyl would have been a coal power plant more people could be expected to have been killed from air pollution than people who actually died from the nuclear meltdown and the associated nuclear fallout. 

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on September 10, 2015

How about the following:


In the late 1990s, Germany’s economy was stagnating, and instead of looking inward for economic expansion, Schroeder looked outward, and especially to Russia. He developed what some consider Germany’s most strategic partnerships in decades when he forged ties with Russia that would give Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, cheap fuel from Russia.

In September 2004, Schroeder signed an agreement to build a $4.7 billion pipeline with Russia, known as Nord Stream, that would run on the Baltic Sea floor, bypassing many Eastern and Central European countries. In February 2005, Schroeder resigned as chancellor and gave up his seat in parliament.

One month later, in what David Kramer of Freedom House described as a strategic move by Russia to “buy up German politicians,” OAO Gazprom (MCX:GAZP), a Russian company that’s the largest extractor of natural gas, hired Schroeder as chairman of the Nord Stream pipeline project.

“It’s disgraceful,” Kramer said. The managing director of Nord Stream AG, Matthias Warnig, is also has ties to Russia since he served as an East German secret police officer during the time when Putin was a KGB agent in East Germany.

Schroeder set up his position in Gazprom well before he resigned. Less than one month before stepping down, the chancellor facilitated a $1.4 billion loan for Gazprom, according to Foreign Policy. Today, in addition to serving as chairman of the board of Nord Stream AG, he is a member of the board at TNK-BP, a joint venture between British Petroleum and various Russian partners.

Schroeder’s position at Gazprom and TNK-BP is now causing problems for Germany and its relationship with the U.S. After choosing to gradually phase out nuclear power by 2022 [ed: Schroders first action in office was to announce nuclear phaseout!], Germany is more dependent on Russian oil and gas than ever.

[end quote]

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on September 10, 2015

The Germans are more susceptible to self-destructive romantic delusions than the British.

Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on September 10, 2015


Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on September 10, 2015

Ouch! Bullseye! You’ve found the one thing that connects Der Ring der Neibelung, Heidelberg duelling scars, Adolf Hitler, and Energiewende.

James Hopf's picture
James Hopf on September 10, 2015

There are many other clearly false assertions in this article, in addition to the ridiculous statement about renewables being superior to nuclear, with respect to practicality and economcs, etc… (as was thoroughly addressed by Joris).

Nuclear’s high dependencies on govt. subsidies??  Renewables are far MORE dependent on subsidies and other interventions than nuclear has ever been.  Renewables subsidies, on a per kW-hr basis, are far higher.  On top of that there are outright mandates for their use.  Has there ever been a nuclear mandate?  On balance, govts (over the last few decades, anyway) have acted to greatly hold nuclear back, primarily through vast over-regulation and the associated needlss costs.  Some new plants, like Hinkley, are subsidied, but it is nothing compared to the German renewables subsidies, and is lower than the subsidies given to most British renewables as well.

Public attitudes on nuclear similar between Germany and Britain??  Not even close.  The German public has been by far the most anti-nuclear in the entire developed world for many decades.  Britain’s public has been among the most pro-nuclear, polls show.

The drivel about democracy and military angles is barely worth a response.  There is no military angle or connection at all, with respect to civilian nuclear power in those countries.  And I, like most others here, have no idea what they’re even talking about with their suggestion that Britain is less democratic than Germany.  There is an equal level of democracy in those countries, in general and with respect to the decision to pursue nuclear (public consultation process, etc….).  Why do you think the public consultation process alone requires several years?

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on September 10, 2015

I’m afraid I cannot claim credit for that insight, and I cannot recall where or from whom I got it.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on September 11, 2015

Technological choices … are as much a matter for democracy as for technical expertise.

Umm, wow.  I couldn’t disagree more.   In our capitalist society, democracy provides a mechanism for businesses to profit in ways that are destructive to society, by using their tremendous powers of persuasion to mislead the general public.  For example in the pre-FDA era, companies could sell “snake oil” as a cure-all, and more recently companies claimed smoking tobacco to be beneficial.

I’m reminded of the situation with the US legal system.  It’s decended from the British system, but in our desire to be rid of the royal priveliged class, we swapped out decisions made by professional judges with decisions by juries of regular people.  It sounded good when we chose it, but now we have a system in which cases routinely come down to which side has the most expensive lawyer team, rather than the actual merits of the case.

There is a clear need for technical expertise in setting public policy on technical matters like medicine, law, energy, and the environment.  There is however a role for the general public in saying how much they value health care or a clean environment, but choosing the path to get there must be left to the experts.

The perfect example of a bad public policy outcome is when the scientific community says that the biggest problem with our energy system is particulate, CO2, and other chemical emissions from fossil fuel combustions, and democratic public policy (e.g. Germany policy) ignores that guidance and says that nuclear (with its excellent safety and environmental performance, with tolerable economics) is the energy source that should be eliminated first.  

Democracy can’t determine how many rivets are needed to hold an airplane together, how much steel is needed in the frame of a building, what medicine is best for a given disease.  It also can’t determine how best to control pollution from our energy system or how much radiation is safer than fossil fuel pollution.  We need technical experts.

Matt Robinson's picture
Matt Robinson on September 11, 2015

The Anti-nuclear Collective is at it again. Sad. Very sad.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on September 11, 2015

There is a clear need for technical expertise in setting public policy on technical matters like medicine, law, energy, and the environment.  There is however a role for the general public in saying how much they value health care or a clean environment, but choosing the path to get there must be left to the experts.”

Well said.

Grace Adams's picture
Grace Adams on September 11, 2015

If we would do a decent job of educating all our children as far as they are able to benefit from education, it might be possible to explain  what choices are available and even to some extent what the trade offs are among those choices to our population as a whole.  Not everybody would understand everything, but I would hope enough persons would understand enough of the arguments for and against most of the choices to have a beneficial effect on voting–maybe even straw votes at least on the major issues.

I must admit I ended up speaking intelligent lay English with a western Pennsylvania accent since that was what my father spoke, and I liked him much better than I liked my mother.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on September 11, 2015

Here is the English version of the Energiewende site.  The “Letztes Jahr” button is labelled “Last Year” on this one.

Like California’s, Germany’s demand profile is dominated by baseload! If they put in 70 GWatt of nuclear and utilized just 5 GWatts of their existing storage, all of their coal miner would loose their jobs, and their Russian fossil gas suppliers would loose nearly all their German sales.  I’m sure these special interest groups are glad the Germans have instead opted to evolve their grid towards greater dependence on flexible generation.

It is also quite interesting that German biomass plants are dispatched as baseload.  Their hydro is pretty flat too.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on September 12, 2015

“There is a clear need for technical expertise in setting public policy on technical matters like medicine, law, energy, and the environment.”


Advise on policy? Surely. Set? In isolation? No. Policy setting technical experts, i.e. government bureaucrats, also do not determine the number of rivets, soon to be the amount of composite adhesive, required in a modern airplane, though they may well have tried in the now-failed centrally planned states. The engineers and scientists of aerospace firms do so. It is not as though a technocracy is some kind of aspiration with which we have no experience. The counties surrounding Washington, DC have the largest number of PhDs per capita in the world. The NRC and DoE, loaded with technical experts, have been shown in these pages to be either ambivalent or outright hostile to nuclear design innovation, long term waste disposal, and cost cutting, producing the like of the ALARA standard. The FDA may be have abolished the historical snake oil remedies, but clearly they still exist in modern form, and along the way the FDA manages to slow valuable drugs, also produced by our capitalist system, from reaching the market.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on September 12, 2015

Regarding the problems with the DOE and NRC, I think that is basically a political problem roughly the opposite of regulatory capture:  the fossil fuel industry uses its influence to drive regulation that inhibit major competitors.  I think the answer is for the public to demand that policy be more science-guided.

It is interesting that the FDA has recognized a need for gag-rules which prohibit companies from making false claims about their products.  It is too bad there are no rules which prohibit activist groups from making false statements about nuclear power; the lies about it (i.e. claims of excessive risk) have literally lead to the deaths of millions of people due to ill-advised use of coal instead of nuclear power.

Matt Robinson's picture
Matt Robinson on September 14, 2015

At what? Producing articles that purport to be factual, but in fact push an anti-nuclear agenda by omitting key facts about it (and renewables), misrepresenting both.

Why does that sadden you? Because it maligns the only energy source that can truly replace large-scale fossil electricity generation.

What is your perspective? Nuclear should be reported with all the facts. No distortion is necessary because it is clearly a superior solution to renewables.

What are your recommendations and arguments? I recommend an end to this kind of reporting. Balance the facts and ensure your report matches its headline.

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