How Fukushima altered Germany’s energy landscape

On March 11, 2011, at 2:46 pm, a powerful earthquake struck 72 km off the Japanese coast. This six-minute tremor was the strongest ever recorded in Japan. Fifty minutes later, 13-meter-high tsunami waves hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, one of the world’s largest, located on the coast to utilize seawater for reactor cooling. Although designed to withstand 5-meter tsunamis, the plant’s cooling system failed, releasing radioactivity and prompting Japanese authorities to evacuate everyone within a 30 km radius.

The world was in shock. Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, in Germany, events unfolded as follows:

Nuclear power is not a renewable energy source, but it is a clean one. In fact, it's among the cleanest in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and one of the safest: only one person died from radioactivity after Fukushima, compared to millions who die annually from air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels. Like solar and wind power, nuclear energy is environmentally friendly but more space-efficient and less dependent on weather conditions.

But Germans have historically been skeptical of nuclear energy. The 1986 Chernobyl disaster hit close to home, highlighting the inherent risks. The anti-nuclear movement was already robust, emphasizing the lack of a sustainable long-term solution for disposing of radioactive waste. Many supporters of this movement played a pivotal role in founding the Green Party in 1980, which has been in government since 2021. In response to the Fukushima accident, which sparked widespread concern, Germany swiftly moved to phase out nuclear power. As of April last year, Germany ceased producing nuclear energy altogether.

Eleven years after Fukushima, 41% of the country’s energy production came from burning coal (for the biggest share of any energy source), a major contributor to climate change. That would have been way lower if Germany had kept producing nuclear power. Let’s play with that thought and look at a hypothetical alternative history:

The dashed line in the chart above shows what the energy production in Germany could have looked like if the German government had not decided to phase out nuclear power after Fukushima. We see a steep rise of coal use from 2011 onwards; in the alternative history, nuclear energy would have been in its place. From 2023 onwards, wind power would have covered most energy needs, regardless of nuclear or coal.

It’s important to note that the amount of energy consumed in Germany also dropped between 2010 and today: by 18%. The reason for that is a mix of many factors: industries that left Germany; new, more energy-efficient technologies; and the rise of energy costs, which led households to pay more attention to their energy consumption.

Even though Germany stopped producing nuclear energy in 2023, it didn’t stop consuming it. In 2022, a tenth of the imported energy was still nuclear.

So, would it have been better to keep nuclear power plants running in Germany? The charts show that we probably would have seen fewer coal emissions. On the other hand, the number of highly radioactive waste barrels would have continued to rise – and a nuclear catastrophe can always happen again, regardless of precautions.

It's a difficult decision, weighing many factors: the short-term goal of reducing emissions and the long-term goal of finding sustainable and safe energy solutions. Germany chose the latter and focused on developing renewable energy sources. As we move forward, it's crucial to support and accelerate these renewable energy initiatives, ensuring a cleaner and safer energy future for all.

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Lisa Charlotte Muth

This article was published originally on Datawrapper.

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