Ortwin Renn, Professor of Environmental and Technology Studies, Germany

“It’s about acceptance”

Ortwin Renn is a professor of environmental and technology studies and director of the Research Center for Interdisciplinary Risk and Innovation at the University of Stuttgart. From 2006 to 2012 he headed the Sustainability Council for the state of Baden-Württemberg and was a member of the Ethics Commission on a Safe Energy Supply, appointed by German chancellor Angela Merkel.

“Nuclear power plants belonging to the so-called third generation are safer than their predecessors, and it’s safe to assume that with these reactors, the accidents in Chernobyl or Fukushima would have been far less grave or would not even have occurred. We can speak here of a learning effect. It’s not just about improved relief valves or stronger casings; the modular design of new types of power plants reduces their complexity. Decisions that have to be made by operators, such as when something malfunctions, are thus easier to make. This reduces the risk of making everything worse with wrong decisions. The thesis formulated by Charles Perrow, in which complex technical systems essentially fail by themselves, is thus is need of revision. We are speaking here about technique.


But for a long time now, a nuclear power plant risk assessment is not just about an expert assessment and providing advice to authorities and society at large. It’s also about the question of accepting a risk. As individuals, we underestimate the risk of dying from a car accident and overestimate the risk of being exposed to radiation. This is the same all over the world. It looks quite different when it comes to the acceptance of nuclear energy. In Germany, a nuclear phase-out wasn’t the only option on the table after Fukushima, and in neighbouring France no one seriously raised this. This can easily be explained by the different political cultures. In centralist France, and also to a certain extent in Japan, there is a lot of trust in the technical elite and a type of collective pride specifically in what the nuclear industry affords us. In federalist Germany, the resistance that emerged after the first euphoric years has since grown and never faded away. What tipped the scales in favour of the phase-out was a politically motivated reassessment of the risk. Instead of theoretical models, which put the probability of a nuclear accident in the realm beyond human imagination, we've come to rely on historical experience, which shows us that we have to expect such an event worldwide every 25 years. It hits much closer to home from this perspective. But if we look to China, it becomes clear that there is an enormous demand for energy that cannot be satisfied despite the strong promotion of renewable energy. In this context, nuclear energy would seem to be indispensable, and acceptance is correspondingly high.”