Why Germany is dumping nuclear power – and Britain isn’t

The message from Germany. justflix, CC BY-NC

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. These are strong 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 decisions 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.