Atomfrei: Angela Merkel’s Decision to Phase Out German Nuclear Power

On March 11th, 2011, the largest earthquake in Japan’s history set off a tsunami which breached the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The flooding destroyed the plant’s power generators preventing cool water from cycling to the hot nuclear core. Fearing a meltdown, Japan’s prime minister declared a nuclear emergency and ordered the evacuation of 150,000 residents living within a few mile radius.[1]

Nearly 6,000 miles away, Chancellor Angela Merkel watched on in horror. Only three days after the Fukushima incident, on March 14th, 2011, she made the decision to set Germany on the path to become atomfrei – non-nuclear.[2] At the time, nuclear power supplied nearly a quarter of Germany’s electricity.[3]

The legacy of Merkel’s decision to phase out Germany’s nuclear power fleet casts a long shadow on Europe’s largest economy today. The German’s are in the midst of an energy crisis as Russian gas flows have been cut off raising electricity prices by 60% from 2020[4], prompting industrial slowdowns, layoffs, and nationwide economic contraction. Making matters worse, Germany’s 2045 net-zero pledge is in jeopardy as greenhouse gas emissions have increased nearly 5%, the most in 30 years[5], due to the increased use of coal to fill the energy gap.[6]

More than 10 years later, this consequential decision is ripe for analysis. Did Merkel act too abruptly without sufficiently considering the pros and cons, or did she make the right decision with the information she had at the time? The process of coming to a decision on the nuclear phaseout reveals a number of strengths and weaknesses about Merkel as a leader and the range of leadership styles she employed.

Strengths of the Decision-Making Process

Leveraging Expert Power

The first strength was that Merkel leaned in on a skills-based leadership approach because she had a Ph.D. in physics.[7] Unlike her contemporaries, like Barack Obama, David Cameron, and Nicolas Sarkozy, who had backgrounds primarily in law, she was an actual scientist who wrote her dissertation on quantum chemistry and was thus able to understand and speak the technical language around nuclear power. Recently, she said, “you know from me that with my training as a physicist, I of course apportion a great deal of weight to academic advice and use it myself.” [8]

She was able to exercise her credentials as a form of “expert power” where her decision on weighing the safety of nuclear power had more credibility. Others in the government deferred to her expert power with Martin Faulstich, chairman of the German Advisory Council on the Environment, saying at the time, “As a scientist, Merkel understood climate change and the dangers of nuclear power.”[9] A prominent journalist covering her at the time, noted “Her years of research instilled in her the conviction that she has a very good sense of how likely events are, not only in physics but also in politics.”[10]

Being Flexible in Policies and Beliefs

The second strength was that she decided to pursue a policy that had popular support even though it meant flip-flopping on her and her party’s previous support of nuclear power – this underscored the                                                                                                               seriousness and gravity of the issue that Fukushima raised.  The German anti-nuclear movement has existed for decades beginning in the 1970s. It gained broader public support following the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986 resulting in a “nuclear consensus” with Germany’s large utilities that the country’s nuclear power stations would not operate beyond 32 years, leading to a full phaseout by 2022.[11]

When Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, regained power in 2009 she helped push through a reversal of the nuclear phaseout, extending the operating life of Germany’s 17 nuclear power plants for an average of 12 years. This was a deeply unpopular decision with the public resulting in tens of thousands taking to the streets in nationwide protests in the fall of 2010. A survey from the newspaper Die Zeit at the time found that nearly 50% of the population was against any extension of Germany’s nuclear power plants. Just a few months later, Fukushima unfolded, prompting Merkel to turn her back on nuclear saying, ““Fukushima changed my attitude towards nuclear energy.”[12]

While this was portrayed as a U-turn that was done by Merkel to shift to wherever the prevailing political winds were, those close to her describe the decision as closer to a genuine “awakening”.[13] In contrast to her carefully calculated response to the Eurozone crisis, she demonstrated little hesitation in reversing her previous position from just a few months ago and taking on her party and the powerful utility industry. This displayed an acute sense of self-awareness and self-regulation not to be locked into an ideological or policy position, but to be open to change and recognize the moods, emotions, and drives of the nation around her in the moment.

Visionary Leadership

The third strength was demonstrating transformational leadership by articulating a vision for a sustainable Germany that would become the leader in renewable energy to replace the need for nuclear power. “We want to end the use of nuclear energy and reach the age of renewable energy as fast as possible,” Merkel said as she announced the nuclear moratorium.[14] To do so, Merkel called upon to Germans to lead an Energiewende, an “energy turn” or “energy transition”, through a long-term societal and economic transformation to create a climate-neutral energy system by 2045.[15] She laid out a bold vision with an ambitious series of targets to double the share of renewable energy from ~16%[16] at the time to 35% of electricity generation by 2020, 50% in 2030, 65% in 2040, and more than 80% by 2050.[17]

Merkel seized the national fear around nuclear power to inspire the nation to become a renewable energy powerhouse instead, thus staking her credibility on a multi-decade energy transition. In rallying her supporters, she proclaimed, “If we succeed, [the Energiewende] – and I’m convinced of it – will become another German export hit. And I’m also convinced that if any country can succeed with this Energiewende, then it’s Germany.”[18]

Weaknesses of the Decision-Making Process

Insular Process Without Sufficiently Consulting Key Experts

Merkel’s decision-making process was not without its flaws. The biggest weakness was an insular decision-making team that didn’t involve key experts. As a result, a number of faulty assumptions were made about the vulnerability of German nuclear power plants. During the pivotal days after the Fukushima incident, it was reported that Merkel “reached the momentous decision to phase out nuclear power by 2022 after discussing it one night over red wine with her husband, Joachim Sauer, a physicist and university professor, at their apartment in central Berlin.”[19]

Coming to such a serious decision over just consultations with one’s spouse hardly seems like the ideal process. Indeed, as a result some erroneous assumptions were made about the true risk that Germany’s nuclear power plants posed. Merkel and her party were supportive of nuclear power in the wake of Chernobyl because they believed the nuclear safety, transparency, and technology standards in the Soviet Union were poor – vulnerabilities that German safety standards and technologies would not succumb to.[20]  Fukushima changed that perception. Merkel remarked, “we couldn’t help but take notice that, even in a technologically advanced country like Japan, the risks of nuclear energy cannot be securely controlled.”[21]

However, this was a faulty assumption – Japan did in fact did have lower nuclear safety standards. For example, Japan’s nuclear emergency planners were relying on a century-old plan for how to prevent flooding in response to an earthquake or tsunami. By comparison, German nuclear plants were designed to withstand 10,000-year floods.[22] Merkel’s rationale that if a nuclear accident can happen in Japan, it could also happen in Germany was too simplistic. As one observer noted, “had she consulted her own experts, her concerns could easily have been dispelled.”[23]

Interestingly, it appears Merkel did convene some experts after her initial announcement. After announcing the three-month moratorium on extending the life of ten of Germany’s nuclear plants, she ordered a safety check of all existing nuclear plants and established the Reactor Safety Commission to advise the government on the technical and operational safety of the nuclear fleet in light of what was seen in Fukushima.

The Reactor Safety Commission report was issued in May 2011 and concluded that the safety standards in Germany were quite high, but the seven oldest plants were not designed to withstand a plane crash. This ended up becoming the justification for shutting down the oldest reactors. In July 2011, the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament, took up Merkel’s proposal and used the commission’s report to vote overwhelmingly to shut down all of Germany’s nuclear plants by 2022.[24] 

Given the high nuclear safety standards and relatively unlikeliness of a 9/11-style attack on nuclear plants, why move forward with the phaseout? This leads to the second major weakness of Merkel’s decision-making process – potentially over-emphasizing the political dynamics of the nuclear phaseout compared to longer term economic, climate, and security-related implications.

Prioritizing Domestic Politics over Economics and Energy Security  

At the time that Fukushima happened, it coincided with a critically important campaign period in the bell-weather state of Baden-Württemberg which was highly influential to national German politics. Merkel’s party had been in power there for nearly 60 years and was under threat by the Green Party, which was staunchly anti-nuclear. As she went to go campaign there in March, she was greeted by throngs of anti-nuclear protestors chanting “Shut them down!”.[25] A poll released by news channel N-TV at the time showed that 88% of Germans wanted the nuclear plants to shut sooner rather than later.[26]

Although it is difficult to know how much politics played a role in her final decision, she was undoubtedly sensitive to the implications. That same sensitivity, however, did not seem to be granted to the other stakeholders that would be impacted – including German industries, utilities, and national security advisors.

Germany is one of the world’s largest producers of cars, chemicals, and heavy machinery, requiring a stable and continuous flow of electricity. Pulling the plug on a quarter of electricity generation was met with heavy criticism from the Federal Association or German Industry, known as BDI. It’s president Hans-Peter Keitel wrote a letter to Merkel warning her about the consequences this would have for German industrial businesses which drove two-thirds of the German economy.[27] Germany’s four major utilities, E.ON, RWE, Vatenfall, and enBW, issued similar warnings – arguing that nuclear energy was a critical part of a stable electricity supply and it would be cheaper and cleaner than dirtier alternatives which would inevitably fill the gap.[28]

Lastly, Merkel turned a blind eye to the geopolitical implications of the nuclear phaseout. At time of the decision, Germany was Europe’s second largest importer of Russian gas, which provided almost 40% of all of Germany’s natural gas.[29] The day after the Bundestag formalized Merkel’s nuclear phase out, German Economy Minister Philipp Roesler went to Russia to discuss their energy relationship and gas exports.

Merkel was warned by her national security advisors that the nuclear phaseout would result in Germany becoming more dependent on Russian natural gas.[30]  Analysts and officials also forebode that the phaseout could embolden Russia and “spell trouble in the long run” because of Germany’s reliance on Russian energy. This was already an explicit calculation on the Russian side. In summer of 2011, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was reportedly “looking to secure closer access to consumers in Germany…after Berlin’s recent announcement that it would phase out of nuclear power by 2022 increased its need for alternatives.”[31]

Decision Outcomes

Eleven years since Merkel’s decision, how has the nuclear phaseout fared for both its detractors and supporters?

Renewable energy has grown exponentially in the German energy mix and is on track to reach Merkel’s stated goal. Germany generated around 120 terawatt hours (TWh) of renewable power in 2011, going up to 238 TWh in 2021.[32] As a result, renewable power has gone from around 16% of total German power generation to around 40% today – the goal was 35% by 2020 and 50% by 2050.

However, the growth in renewables has not fully closed the gap left by nuclear. In turn, Germany has ramped up its coal production to provide the baseload generation that nuclear power previously did. At least 20 coal plants have been brought back online or had their lifetimes extended.[33] The result has been an increase in annual CO2 emissions by 36 megatons, with an estimated 1,000 additional deaths from air pollution. [34] This has put Merkel’s 2030 emissions reduction target out of reach until potentially 2046.[35]

Along with the increase in emissions, the political savviness of Merkel’s decision has not aged well. German perceptions of the Energiewende are much less positive now than at the time. Today, nearly 82% of Germans believe the country needs to either delay closure of their remaining nuclear plants or they should be used in the long term – virtually a 180-degree reversal from the sentiment in 2011.[36]

This could be attributed to the fact that electricity prices have skyrocketed by an average of 60% which is driving inflation to nearly 10% year over year.[37] Energy costs for one German factory are expected to go up by 600% next year.[38] As a result, Germany is in fact keeping two of its three last nuclear plants on a “standby” status until April 2023 rather than completing the closure by the end of 2022 like Merkel had pledged.[39]

The decision to extend the nuclear plants has its roots in a fear that Merkel’s foreign policy advisors had back in 2011 – that Russia would not be a reliable energy partner. Indeed, since the invasion of Ukraine has Russia has throttled gas flows through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline down to 20% of its capacity[40], including completely halting gas flows for supposed “maintenance purposes”[41]. Wholesale gas prices in Germany have shot up 400%.[42]

Ultimately, Merkel’s nuclear phaseout achieved some of its goals, but largely ended up proving its detractors correct. While renewable energy has scaled impressively, overall Germany’s energy security and environmental footprint has deteriorated. The COVID-19 pandemic followed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have acted as twin shocks to the German economy and energy prices which have resulted in Germans seeking to extend the few nuclear plants that have yet to go offline and ultimately popular opinion reverting to support of nuclear power, regardless of any perceived risks.


In re-casting of Angela Merkel’s consequential decision to phase out Germany’s nuclear fleet, there are several ways the decision could have been more effective and executed more strategically. Here, I define a strategic decision as one that would have addressed the concerns around nuclear safety while also strengthening Germany’s economic and energy security. A more effective decision I define as one with a more robust decision-making process that better reflects the expert consensus on nuclear power along with the will of the people.

1. To make a more effective decision, Angela Merkel should have engaged in a more robust, and drawn-out consultative process with key nuclear power experts, energy industry leaders, foreign policy staff, and the Christian Democratic Union party leadership.

From the publicly available reporting, it appears as though Merkel was convinced to backtrack on nuclear while watching footage from Fukushima and ultimately made the final decision over dinner with her husband. The fact that the decision of this magnitude was made merely three days after Fukushima, while it was still occurring and all the details had not fully come out, and with her husband who was not a government employee, reflects a deficient consultation process with key experts in the relevant domain areas.

Putting ourselves in Merkel’s shoes on March 11th, 2011, as Fukushima was unfolding, a more effective approach would be to start from a standpoint of whether any action needed to be taken at all. Determining this answer would involve immediate engagement with the Federal Ministry for Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (known as BMUV). It appears that Merkel only went to BMUV and the Reactor Safety Commission after the initial moratorium was announced which effectively set the political decision in motion. As was discussed earlier, there was a vast difference between Japanese and German nuclear safety standards and there were few if any parallels between what happened in Japan and what could happen in Germany – a fact which Merkel could have found out before announcing the moratorium if she had consulted with them.

If she was still resolved to move forward, she should have convened a Nuclear Transition Council with a six-month mandate to come to a decision on the scope and timeline of a nuclear phaseout. This council would be represented by key energy industry leaders including the four largest utilities – E.ON, RWE, Vatenfall, and enBW – as well as national security staff focused on energy security and Russia, and her political party’s (Christian Democratic Union) campaign arm, equivalent to our DNC or RNC. This council would have been able to provide a holistic perspective on how a nuclear phase out would affect electricity prices, CO2 emissions, the relationship with Russia, and political ramifications. By taking an integrated, expert-driven approach, Merkel would have avoided blindsiding any particular constituency and would more likely execute a policy that satisfied a broader swath of affected stakeholders.  

Critics may argue that Merkel did not have time to convene such a council, or that she did consult with these experts at the time. However, it was clear from the timeline that the thrust of the decision was made between March 11th and March 14th – three days was hardly enough time for an in-depth analysis of the situation on the ground in Japan and the impact of phasing out a quarter of the electricity supply in Germany forever. In addition, Merkel reportedly “sidelined foreign policy and security experts who warned her against seeing Russia as a reliable partner in trade” and moved forward with the phaseout.[43]  To suggest that she did not have time to engage in this process would presume that she made the decision with a political clock in mind, in particular the Baden-Württemberg elections at the end of March. If this were the case and Merkel did not have six months to let this consultative dialogue play out, then recommendation number two could have let her make a more strategic play.

2. To make a more strategic decision, Angela Merkel should have sought to bolster the safety of Germany’s oldest nuclear plants while still advocating for Energiewende – the energy transition – to create an alternate German political economy which shed dependence on Russian energy.   

The most strategic outcome for Merkel would have been one where she could present herself as genuinely responding to the concerns of German citizens regarding nuclear safety while putting the country on a path to a clean energy future that would also be independent of Russian energy supplies. How could she have done this?

First, in response to Fukushima, Merkel should have immediately ordered a review of the nuclear safety status, codes, and regulations for all seventeen of Germany’s nuclear reactors and order retrofitting or retiring of the oldest/most vulnerable reactors based on that review. This would have given her the flexibility to partially phase out nuclear power, or not at all, based on an evidenced-based approach that brought in the relevant experts while also appearing sensitive to German consternation about the safety of nuclear power – a message that could have also played well politically.

Second, in tandem with this decision, Merkel should have announced the Energiewende as geopolitical move, not one to compensate the loss of nuclear power. Making Germany a global powerhouse in the renewable power industry would strengthen its foreign policy. Rather than give an opening to Russia to further tighten their screws on German energy dependence, it would have forced them on a backfoot to look for alternative markets as German baseload power would be sustained by nuclear in the short to medium term. Although this could not have completely prevented the impacts of COVID-19, it could possibly have deterred the Russian invasion of Ukraine which was emboldened by their belief that Europe would not mount a coordinated response, in part because of German reliance on Russian energy.[44]

Ultimately, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s tenure will forever be marked by her decision to phase out German nuclear power. While there were certainly admirable traits in her courage and political savviness to make such a consequential decision, I believe it will be remembered as a hastily conceived and executed plan without the right experts or political constituencies to make Germany’s energy transformation successful in the long term. Indeed, as Germans were told by their former finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble in October to “stop whining” and “just put on a sweater, or maybe a second sweater” in the event of energy blackouts this winter[45] – one can’t help but wonder whether Merkel’s unplugging of the country’s nuclear power is responsible for putting them in this situation.


[1] Adam Janos, “Fukushima Timeline: How an Earthquake Triggered Japan’s 2011 Nuclear Disaster,” History, March 5th 2021,

[2] Helen Pidd and Suzanne Goldenberg, “Germany suspends power station extension plans as nuclear jitters spread,” The Guardian, March 14th, 2011,

[3] Richard Van Noorden, “The knock-on effects of Germany’s nuclear phase-out”, Nature, June 3rd, 2011,

[4] Anna Cooban, “Rocketing energy costs are savaging German industry “, CNN Business, October 7th, 2022,

[5] Associated Press, “Germany ‘set for biggest rise in greenhouse gases for 30 years’”, The Guardian, August 15th, 2021,

[6] Angela Cullen, “Germany’s Carbon Emissions Rise in Setback for Climate Goals,” Bloomberg, March 15th, 2022,

[7] Emma Johnston And Kylie Walker, “OPINION: Angela Merkel’s career shows why we need more scientists in politics,” UNSW Sydney, September 24th, 2021,

[8] Reuters, “I’m a physicist, I listen to the science, Germany’s Merkel says”, November 2nd, 2020,

[9] Paul Hockenos, “The history of the Energiewende”, Clean Energy Wire, June 22nd 2015,

[10] Christian Schwägerl, “How Angela Merkel became Germany’s unlikely green energy champion,” The Guardian, May 9th, 2011,

[11] Kerstine Appunn, “The history behind Germany’s nuclear phase-out”, Clean Energy Wire, March 9h, 2021,

[12] Deutschland.De, “Especially memorable”, September 18th, 2021,

[13] Judy Dempsey, “How Merkel Decided to End Nuclear Power”, The New York Times, August 13th, 2011,

[14] Ibid. 10.

[15] Agora Energiewende, “Q1 What is the German Energiewende?”,

[16] Patrick Grosskopf, “Is 100% Renewable Energy possible for Germany by 2020?”, Global Energy Network Institute, August 2011,

[17] Ibid. 10.  

[18] Solar Choice, “Renewables are now mainstream in Germany: Merkel”, February 4th, 2014,

[19] Ibid. 13.

[20] Miranda A. Schreurs, “The politics of phase-out”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 2012,

[21] Suddeutsche Zeitung, “Diese Leute sind brandgefährlich für unsere Demokratie”,

[22] Leon Holly, “Germany’s Quiet Nuclear Disaster”, Areo Magazine, June 1st, 2022,

[23] Ibid. 22.

[24]  Ibid. 20.

[25] Spiegel International, “Merkel Gambles Credibility with Nuclear U-Turn”, March 21st, 2011,

[26] Ibid. 2.  

[27] Ibid. 13.  

[28] Ibid. 20.

[29] Ibid. 13.  

[30] Patrick Wintour, “‘We were all wrong’: how Germany got hooked on Russian energy”, The Guardian, June 2nd, 2022,

[31] DW, “Energy Matters,” July 18th, 2011,

[32] Kerstine AppunnYannick HaasJulian Wettengel, “Germany’s energy consumption and power mix in charts”, Clean Energy Wire, August 3rd, 2022,

[33] Rob Schmitz, “Amid an energy crisis, Germany turns to the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel”, NPR, September 27th 2022,

[34] Ibid. 22.

[35] Chris Lo, “Energiewende: assessing Angela Merkel’s clean energy legacy”, Power Technology, December 12th, 2019,

[36] Isabeau van Halm, “Weekly data: Shift in Germany’s perception of nuclear energy,” Energy Monitor, August 22nd, 2022,

[37] The Local De, “How electricity prices are rising across Germany”, November 25th, 2022,

[38] Ibid. 4.  

[39] Sonal Patel, “Germany Halts Closure of Two Nuclear Plants Until April 2023,” Power Magazine, September 8th, 2022,

[40] AP, “Russia to cut gas through Nord Stream 1 to 20% of capacity”, July 25th, 2022,

[41] CNBC, “Russia’s Gazprom keeps gas pipeline to Germany switched off,” September 2nd, 2022,

[42] Ibid. 4.  

[43] Philip Oltermann, “Germany agonises over Merkel’s legacy: did she hand too much power to Putin?”, The Guardian, March 5th, 2022,

[44] Matthew Karnitschnig, “How Germany helped blaze Putin’s path into Ukraine”, Politico EU, February 24th, 2022,

[45] Kate Duffy, “Germans told to stop whining, wear 2 sweaters and have candles and flashlights ready in case of blackouts this winter,” Business Insider, October 12th, 2022,

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