Nuclear Energy in the U.S. and Germany: Weighing the Risks
Energy and climate policy in the U.S. and in Germany seem to be miles apart. In 2011, Germany decided to phase-out nuclear, whereas in early 2012 the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted the first license to build and operate an extension of a nuclear power plant for the first time since 1978. Americans view the German “energy transformation” (Energiewende) with skepticism; conservative policymakers argue that Germany is endangering its economic welfare, whereas U.S. environmentalists fear that Germany will be unable to meet its CO2 emissions targets it has agreed to in the European emissions trading framework. When discussing risk assessment in Germany and the United States, analysts often argue that while Germans are risk-averse, Americans embrace risk more easily. If nuclear energy is considered risky, then the recent decisions in the U.S. and in Germany on nuclear energy seem to bolster this claim. However, one could conversely argue that not embracing nuclear energy is more risky as the consequences are far-reaching and have to include the complete transformation of the energy grid; including nuclear energy in the energy mix might thus be a more conservative approach to the energy policy challenges of the future. To understand the different approaches, this Issue Brief outlines the history of nuclear energy in the U.S. and Germany and analyzes how both countries arrived at a very different assessment of the risk and benefits of nuclear energy.