Can nuclear reactors be shut down?

The long road to phasing out nuclear power in Germany

Nuclear power means: generation of energy through an induced nuclear fission, which sets a controlled chain reaction in motion. The energy gained from nuclear fission is converted into thermal energy. This heat is then used to generate electricity. The main fuel used is uranium. Plutonium is also used in so-called mixed oxide fuel rods.

The generation of nuclear energy produces radioactive waste, the dangerous radiation of which only subsides after a very long time. The final disposal of this nuclear waste has not yet been clarified. There is still not a single repository in the world that can permanently keep waste away from the biosphere.

Nuclear power has been used to generate electricity since the 1950s. In Germany, the nuclear reactor in Kahl was commissioned as the first nuclear power plant in 1960.

The ten largest nuclear power generating countries in 2013

In 2016, more than 2,300 billion kWh of nuclear power were generated worldwide. The USA, France and Japan are at the forefront of electricity production from nuclear power. In the future, China will catch up significantly in terms of nuclear power. Here, 20 nuclear power plants with a planned output of 22,411 MW are being planned.

placecountryPower (nuclear power plants)
1United States110,451 MW (99 nuclear power plants)
2France65,880 MW (58)
3Japan42,248 MW (43)
4China34,437 MW (37)
5Russia27,988 MW (35)
6South Korea24,103 MW (25)
7Ukraine13,818 MW (15)
8Germany11,357 MW (8)
9Great Britain10,366 MW (15)
10Sweden9,859 MW (10)


Nuclear power in discussion

Since the anti-nuclear power movement of the 1970s - which used the slogan “Atomkraft? No thanks!" popularized - nuclear power is hotly debated in Germany; in some cases far more than in other countries.

With the adoption of the nuclear phase-out by the conservative federal government, however, it appears that a national consensus has been found. In opinion polls, a large majority of Germans are regularly in favor of ending nuclear power. But the proponents of nuclear power - who mostly talk about nuclear power because of negative associations with the atomic bomb - continue to point out that there are not only disadvantages but also advantages of this type of electricity generation.

The most important arguments in the discussion about nuclear power recur regularly:

Available technology that doesn't need to be developedRisk of accidents with devastating effects on health and the environment
Also suitable for generating large amounts of electricityThe still unsolved problem of the disposal of nuclear waste
Little CO2-Emissions - in this respect, nuclear power makes a contribution to climate protectionUranium is also a limited energy resource

Nuclear phase-out by the red-green federal government

The story of the German nuclear phase-out began in 1998. After the election victory, the red-green coalition under Federal Chancellor Schröder set about implementing the phase-out from atomic energy promised in the election campaign. In 2000, the federal government and the energy supply companies decided to gradually shut down nuclear power plants in Germany. This agreement was later enshrined in the Atomic Energy Act.

The first shutdowns took place in 2003 and 2005 - the nuclear reactors in Stade and Obrigheim had to be taken off the grid. The grand coalition (2005 to 2009) initially adhered to the nuclear phase-out. However, in 2010 the CDU / FDP government decided to extend the service life of the nuclear power plants, which was heavily discussed in public.

While the opponents of nuclear power announced massive protests against this turnaround in nuclear policy, the largest nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl reactor accident occurred in Fukushima (Japan) in March 2011. This brought about - less than a year after the amendment of the exit - a complete reversal in the energy policy of the German government under Angela Merkel.

The second nuclear phase-out

In the summer of 2011, eight reactors were finally taken off the grid after they were temporarily shut down shortly after the Japanese reactor disaster. These were the power plants Biblis A, Biblis B, Brunsbüttel, Isar I, Krümmel, Neckarwestheim I, Phillipsburg I and Unterweser.

For the remaining nuclear power plants in Germany, the Atomic Energy Act decided on fixed exit times. Section 7 (1a) AtG specifies the latest by when the remaining reactors must be shut down.

In 2017, eight reactors were still in operation in Germany:

Nuclear power plantfederal stateInstallationShutdown
Gundremmingen B.Bavaria19842017
Phillipsburg IIBaden-Wuerttemberg19852019
GrohndeLower Saxony19852021
Gundremmingen CBavaria19852021
Isar IIBavaria19882022
EmslandLower Saxony19882022
Neckarwestheim IIBaden-Wuerttemberg19892022

Nuclear phase-out and climate protection

The withdrawal from the use of nuclear energy is closely related to the climate protection goals of the federal government. By 2020, greenhouse gas emissions are to be reduced to 40 percent compared to 1990 levels. Many critics of the nuclear phase-out in Germany point out that electricity can be generated largely emission-free through nuclear power.

In the first few years after the shutdown of eight nuclear power plants, however, there was no excessive expansion of electricity generation from fossil fuels such as coal. Due to a significant increase in electricity production from renewable energies, not significantly more electricity had to be imported in 2011 and 2012 than in previous years. In January and February 2012 (the first winter months after the shutdown of eight nuclear power plants), 42 percent more electricity was generated from renewable energies than in the same period of the previous year.

It is undisputed that the shutdown of nuclear power plants will not make the politically desired exit from coal power any easier. The development of the electricity mix in Germany shows a slight increase in electricity generation from hard coal and lignite for the years 2011 to 2013. At the same time, however, the increase in the share of green electricity (wind, water, sun and biomass) is unmistakable. Chancellor Merkel has repeatedly pointed out the goal of the federal government to increase the share of renewable energies in the electricity mix to 80 percent by 2050.

Decommissioning and dismantling of the nuclear power plants

When a nuclear power plant is shut down, a very long phase of dismantling begins. The first German nuclear power plant (in Kahl) was in operation for 25 years - the complete demolition took 34 years. The dismantling of the Stade nuclear power plant, the first reactor to be taken off the grid due to the red-green nuclear phase-out, is expected to take 13 years.

The reason for the long period of shutdown is that many contaminated parts have to be laboriously dismantled and cleaned. 1.8 million tons of building material have to be disposed of at the Greifswald nuclear power plant, for example. Fuel assemblies take five years to cool down in a spent fuel pool. Only then can they be temporarily stored in Castor containers.

Often a power plant is only dismantled after a so-called “safe enclosure”, in which a concrete shell is used to shield it from the biosphere. The nuclear companies are legally obliged to put money aside for the dismantling. The taxpayers have to pay for the state-owned nuclear power plants of the former GDR.

Nuclear phase-out in court

The law to phase out nuclear energy has legal consequences. There are billions in lawsuits to be decided by the companies concerned. The nuclear phase-out is even on trial in Washington. A lawsuit by the Swedish energy giant Vattenfall is being negotiated there.

The short-term shutdown of the oldest German nuclear reactors immediately after the nuclear accident in Japan prompted the large electricity companies to demand compensation from the federal government. Because the reason for the immediate order to cease operations - a concrete "suspicion of danger" - was not lawful.

After RWE, E.on also demanded compensation from the federal government for lost profits. It is about hundreds of millions of euros, for which the taxpayer could ultimately pay. The outcome of this legal dispute is uncertain and the process is likely to take several years to complete.

Germany as an international pioneer

Internationally, Germany is seen as a pioneer in phasing out nuclear energy. Before that, there had only been a complete nuclear phase-out in Italy after the Chernobyl accident in 1986 - but only four reactors were affected. After the nuclear accident in Japan, only Switzerland and Belgium in Europe, besides Germany, decided to forego the production of electricity from nuclear energy in the long term (Belgium by 2025, Switzerland by 2034). France, on the other hand, is sticking to nuclear energy. In October 2014, parliament only decided to reduce the current share of 75 percent nuclear power in electricity generation to 50 percent in 2025.

As in France, the Fukushima catastrophe hardly caused any changes in nuclear policy anywhere in the world. Germany is almost alone internationally when it comes to phasing out nuclear power. Whether Germany, as one of the most important industrialized countries in the world, will succeed in completely doing without nuclear energy without compromising on climate protection is being watched with interest worldwide.

The personal exit from nuclear power

If you want to do something yourself to phase out nuclear energy and accelerate the energy transition, you can opt for a green electricity tariff. Switching to green electricity is uncomplicated and is the same as with any other electricity provider. By choosing green electricity, the consumer increases the demand for ecologically produced energy.

Green electricity seals and certificates make it easier to choose the right tariff. There are even four supraregional electricity suppliers who rely 100 percent on green electricity - that is, they do not make money from nuclear power and coal. These four electricity providers are:

  • Bright spot
  • Natural power
  • EWS Schönau
  • Greenpeace Energy