Where would Germany be without Fukushima?

Hi, this is Lisa, head of communications at Datawrapper. Today I’m charting an alternative past for energy production in Germany.

On March 11, 2011, at 2:46pm, 72km east off the Japanese coast, the ocean floor shook. The strongest earthquake ever recorded in Japan lasted six minutes. Fifty minutes later, waves 13 meters high hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, one of the biggest power plants in the world, located on the coast to use the seawater to cool the reactors, designed to withstand tsunamis peaking at 5 meters. The reactor cooling system failed; radioacticity released, and Japanese authorities evacuated everyone within a 30km radius.

The world was in shock. On the other side of the planet, in Germany, this happened:

Nuclear power is not a renewable energy source, but it's a clean one – in facts, it's one of the cleanest energy sources (in terms of greenhouse gas emission), and one of the safest (1 person died from radioactivity after Fukushima, compared to millions who die every year from air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels); similar to solar and wind power – but more space-efficient and less weather-dependent.

But Germans have never really warmed up to nuclear energy. The 1986 Chernobyl disaster hit close to home, and showed the constant risk. The anti-nuclear movement was strong even before that, pointing out that there's no sustainable long-term solution for getting rid of the radioactive waste. Many of its supporters helped found the Green Party in 1980 that is in government since 2021. Within days of the Fukushima accident, Germans wanted to get out of nuclear power – and fast. The German government responded. As of last April, Germany doesn't produce nuclear energy anymore.

But maybe that was a mistake. Germans have been telling pollsters for years that they want to get out of nuclear power, but now they are having second thoughts. In April 2023, the month the last nuclear reactor was shut down, nearly 60% of polled people said it was wrong to phase out nuclear power. (In the U.S., too, more people started to support more nuclear energy production.)

"So…maybe we should go back to nuclear?" is something that not only the green German vice chancellor and climate minister is getting asked more and more in interviews.

I wanted to understand where we in Germany could be now if we had never turned our backs on nuclear energy in the first place:

In theory, nuclear power could have completely replaced coal and lignite in Germany by last year, resulting in 83% clean energy (France, with its many nuclear reactors, produced 93% clean energy in 2023).

Of course, that's an oversimplified calculation. It doesn't take into account the many political, technical, and economic constraints. But like any good thought experiment, it gets you thinking: Was Germany's decision after Fukushima the right one? Considering all the pros and cons, what's "worse": fossil fuels or nuclear power?

Next week, look for a Weekly Chart from my coworker from the support & customer success team, Shaylee. See you then!