Issue: January 2023, Goodbye, nuclear power – Unsustainable, uneconomical and high-risk

In Focus

A twilight technology

Nuclear power in Germany: a retrospective

When West Germany opened its first research reactor in Garching near Munich in 1957, nuclear energy still enjoyed broad cross-party support. However, the first protests which followed just a few years later – against the Würgassen reactor in 1968, for example – attested to the already controversial nature of this form of power generation. Major accidents such as the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 also highlighted the potential dangers of nuclear power for humankind. There are many good reasons for phasing out nuclear power. Scientists at the Oeko-Institut have been raising awareness of them for more than 40 years.

The birth of the anti-nuclear movement in the Federal Republic of Germany can be traced back to the successful protests against the planned Wyhl nuclear power plant in the mid-1970s. “It was this conflict which led to the founding of the Oeko-Institut in 1977,” says Michael Sailer, a nuclear energy expert and the Oeko-Institut’s CEO until 2019. “The aim was to support the anti-nuclear movement by providing rigorous analyses and scientific advice.” The opposition was sparked partly by concerns over the substantial risks posed by nuclear energy. “There were major incidents at nuclear facilities all over the world even in the early days, and hazardous situations have continued to occur since then – examples are Biblis in 1987 and Brunsbüttel in 2002,” says Michael Sailer. “Our objective was always to ensure that these incidents were not swept under the carpet.” For the Oeko-Institut, a further aim was to identify alternatives. “Milestones in the Institute’s history include the publication of The Energy Turnaround in 1980 and the follow-up study five years later,” says Julia Neles, Deputy Head of the Nuclear Engineering and Facility Safety Division at the Oeko-Institut. “With these studies, our researchers mapped a pathway towards a nuclear- and fossil-free future.”

Safety not guaranteed

The risks associated with nuclear energy were demonstrated with full force when core meltdown occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine – with catastrophic consequences. Vast areas of land were contaminated, more than 300,000 people had to be evacuated, and there was a high incidence of radiation-induced injuries, particularly among emergency workers. Making matters worse, a cloud of radiation then spread across much of Europe. Estimates of the subsequent costs range between 100 billion and 1000 billion euros.

The Chernobyl disaster changed many people’s views on nuclear energy, but it also changed the role of the Oeko-Institut. “Throughout that period, we offered our independent expertise and provided factual information,” says Michael Sailer. “And afterwards, we were recognised and, above all, taken seriously in official circles as well.” In 1990, for example, the Oeko-Institut was involved in the safety assessment at the Greifswald nuclear power plant. “This led to the closure of all the East German reactors due to their poor safety standards,” says Michael Sailer, who was appointed to Germany’s Reactor Safety Commission in 1999. And after the Fukushima disaster in 2011, the nuclear energy expert made numerous media appearances to raise awareness of the issues around nuclear power. “The Japanese officials initially attempted to play down the true scale of the disaster,” he recalls. Yet again, the disaster demonstrated what can happen when nuclear technology runs out of control: as a result of core meltdown, large amounts of radioactive materials were released, causing contamination of land and seawater. Around 120,000 people had to be evacuated; 25,000 of them are still unable to return home.

The disaster led to another change of direction in Germany’s nuclear energy policy. An exit from nuclear had previously been agreed by Germany’s SPD-Green government back in 2000. In 2010, however, the new CDU/CSU-FDP coalition government extended the nuclear power plant lifetimes by an average of 12 years. After Fukushima, it revisited this decision and voted to phase out nuclear power by 2022. “Before Fukushima, many supporters of nuclear power were claiming that a disaster like Chernobyl could never happen in Western-built reactors. They didn’t believe that a high-tech country like Japan could be affected,” says Michael Sailer.

For eternity: nuclear waste

A final phase-out of nuclear power was also a prerequisite for a resolution to the decades-long conflicts over a repository for high-level radioactive waste. “These conflicts began in the late 1970s with the plans to open a repository at Gorleben in Germany,” Julia Neles explains. A comprehensive process is now under way to identify a repository site. “Here too, the Oeko-Institut’s expertise is in demand. For example, we have provided advice on the process to various local authorities in areas which could be in contention as potential repository sites.”

The waste from nuclear energy use has to be stored safely for time spans beyond human comprehension – in some cases, for up to a million years. “And as well as high-level radioactive waste such as spent fuel elements, there is low- and intermediate-level waste to deal with,” says Julia Neles. “A repository for these waste fractions is due to be completed at Konrad pit near Salzgitter in 2027.”

Nuclear power plant decommissioning also produces quantities of material that can be disposed of as conventional waste – usually because it has never been exposed to radioactive contamination. “These waste fractions have to undergo a process known as clearance,” says Julia Neles, who is a member of the German Environment Ministry’s Nuclear Waste Management Commission (ESK). The Oeko-Institut has already investigated issues relating to decommissioning and radiation protection in many of its projects. “For example, we have advised the German Environment Ministry on regulatory provisions and assisted state-level authorities with practical implementation.”

Environmentally harmful resources

A nuclear power plant cannot operate without resources – and a key input for nuclear power generation is uranium, whose extraction often causes environmental damage on a massive scale. The preventive measures taken tend to be inadequate, particularly in areas populated by indigenous communities. “The groundwater, soil and ambient air become contaminated with radioactive substances,” Julia Neles explains. “And very often, the proportion of uranium found in the ore is very low, so extraction generates very large amounts of mining residues.”

Until the early 1990s, uranium was also mined in Germany – by Wismut GmbH in the Erzgebirge mountains. “Uranium extraction posed serious risks to miners’ health and the decommissioning costs run into billions,” says Julia Neles. The Oeko-Institut has been involved in various projects which investigate the risks of uranium mining. “We have produced numerous expert reports on topics such as strategies for subsequent use of rehabilitated sites, including the issue of safe permanent disposal of mining residues,” Julia Neles explains.

A global threat

A further hazard inextricably linked to nuclear energy use is proliferation, i.e. the risk that technology, know-how and fissionable material might be used to develop nuclear weapons programmes. “There are synergies here. Indeed, representatives of the military in countries such as the UK and the US are now claiming that these countries can only afford nuclear weapons programmes if civilian nuclear energy use continues,” says Julia Neles. And as she explains, even if a country has no aspirations to develop a nuclear weapons programme at present, this does not mean that the situation will remain unchanged in future. “Once a civilian programme is in place, it can be utilised for military purposes later on.”

Looking ahead

The Oeko-Institut has kept a watchful and critical eye on nuclear energy use from the outset. “Due to the number of disasters and worrying incidents that have occurred worldwide, critical expertise is urgently required,” says Julia Neles. “Unfortunately, a serious accident could happen again at any time.” Whether we look back at the past or forward to the future, the message is clear: there are many good reasons for phasing out nuclear power.


Julia Mareike Neles is a graduate engineer and Deputy Head of the Nuclear Engineering and Facility Safety Division at the Oeko-Institut. Her work focuses mainly on the topics of interim and final storage, radioactive waste, and public participation. Julia Neles is a member of the German Environment Ministry’s Nuclear Waste Management Commission and various other bodies.

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