Is nuclear energy on the way out?

May 2011

The Fukushima reactor disaster has altered the attitudes of Germans towards nuclear energy and has increased their willingness to become actively involved in ending the use of this “bridge technology”. In comparison to a few months ago, a greater percentage of Germans are now calling for the expansion of renewable energies, even if energy costs rise as a result.

One thing is certain: since Fukushima, Japan is now only distant from Germany in geographic terms. The reactor disaster has shifted Japan to the center of German attention, and the issue has got under almost everyone’s skin. In light of the current debates, only 11% of Germans are not giving the matter any further thought. In contrast, 70% say that they are affected and concerned by the events that have unfolded thousands of kilometers away. These are findings from a recent survey conducted by GfK Marktforschung, Energy & Environment.

Turning point for energy reached

The verdict is clear: almost half of respondents are in favor of Germany immediately abandoning nuclear energy. In contrast, only one in four disagree with the statement: “nuclear energy, no thank you!”. Following the decision to temporarily shut down seven of Germany’s older reactors, Germans are also thinking about both the security and necessity of newer power plants. One in three respondents support the continuing use of newer reactor plants, while 40% oppose keeping these plants connected to the electricity grid. But why wait for political decisions? This seems to be the view held by almost 25% of respondents, who say that they could imagine changing their energy supplier to one that has renewable energies in its portfolio in the near future. At present, 7% of Germans are “completely” certain of their intention to change. The actual switchover rates of households show that, following the opening of the market in 1998, around 21% of customers had made use of the competitive energy markets and switched energy supplier by 2010, with most doing so to save costs (Source: BDEW Bundesverband der Energie- und Wasserwirtschaft e.V. – German Energy and Water Association, energy data, 4.2. Customer behavior since the market was opened).

Nuclear energy for economic stability?

More than a quarter of Germans are in favor of keeping the nuclear power plants running in order to ensure Germany’s competitiveness. In contrast, there has been a significant increase in the number of Germans (46% in total) who do not consider there to be any economic risk if Germany becomes a nuclear-free country. Pro-nuclear arguments relating to environmental protection and safety only convince a small proportion of the population: around 13% of respondents agree that nuclear energy technology is well developed and the same percentage believe that it reduces CO2 emissions.

The cost of energy change?

“Changing energy source should not put a financial strain on households” was the recent headline of an article in the Tagesspiegel (source: on May 7, 2011) that reported on the Finance Minister’s refusal to bear some of the costs of phasing out nuclear energy. In contrast, German consumers are apparently less frugal: only around 13% agree with the statement “I am in favor of nuclear power because it is cheaper”, while almost 60% do not subscribe to this view. In fact, Germans seem to accept that the change in energy source will cost them something, and concurrently the willingness to spend more on electricity is increasing. While in February around a third of respondents were willing to take into account higher energy prices in return for an expansion of renewable energies, this figure increased to almost half of Germans by April.

But will these words be followed by concrete action? Consumers seem committed: when asked how much more they would be willing to pay for their electricity each month, it emerged that around 20% would be prepared to bear increased costs of between EUR 6 and EUR 10 per month, while a further 18% would be willing to accept a price increase of up to EUR 5, and 15% of respondents would even accept an electricity bill increase of between EUR 11 and EUR 20. However, 37% of Germans would not be willing to take into account any increase in cost. An above-average proportion of those living in East Germany take this view, with almost half of respondents in the new federal states stating that they could not imagine spending a little more on energy in return for a rapid phase-out.

West Germans appear to be “greener”

In general, there are regional differences when it comes to attitudes on energy issues. West Germans are more able to envisage and afford the change to a more ecological electricity provider and the shutdown of newer nuclear reactors, as well as the immediate phasing out of nuclear power. In contrast, East Germans tend to think that the country continues to be reliant on nuclear power in economic terms; they place greater emphasis on the fact that the technology is safe and manageable, and see both the financial and ecological advantages. In the main, they are also less absorbed by the current debate than their western neighbors.

Does the Fukushima disaster symbolize a paradigm shift in power generation? Or is it only a momentary shock wave, from which it is possible to recover rapidly? Regardless of what political decisions are taken over the next few months, events in Fukushima have clearly caused Germans to move away from nuclear power for the time being.

The Ethics Commission for Atomic Energy, which has been set up by German government, has currently reached the verdict that a withdrawal from nuclear energy by 2021 is possible, without endangering the security of the energy supply. According to the Commission, the seven oldest German reactors and the Krümmel plant could be permanently decommissioned without putting the security of Germany’s electricity supply in any danger.

Data source: GfK Marktforschung, Energy & Environment/GfK Verein (GfK Classic Bus, February and April 2011).

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