Ausgabe 29/2009

Atomic Nightmare Krümmel Accident Puts Question Mark over Germany's Nuclear Future

The recent accident at the Krümmel nuclear power plant in northern Germany was more serious than was previously known. Anglea Merkel's Christian Democrats are now finding themselves on the defensive with their plans to extend the life of German nuclear reactors.


Ernst Michael Züfle should never sit down at a poker table, at least not when real money is at stake. When asked last Thursday about damage to the reactor of the Krümmel nuclear power plant, Züfle, the head of the nuclear division of Swedish energy company Vattenfall, swallowed audibly, nervously rolled his pen between his fingers and avoided making eye contact.

The Krümmel nuclear plant near Hamburg: The reactor had to be shut down on July 4 following a short circuit in a transformer.

The Krümmel nuclear plant near Hamburg: The reactor had to be shut down on July 4 following a short circuit in a transformer.

It was already awkward enough for Vattenfall that the accident, which resembled a similar breakdown two years ago, occurred after it had spent €300 million ($420 million) upgrading the plant. As in the 2007 incident, this time there was also a short circuit in a transformer. The reactor, which had just been started up, quickly had to be shut down again on Saturday, July 4.

Züfle was also forced to admit that the accident in the nuclear power plant was more serious than previously known. In addition to the transformer problem, he conceded, there was damage to "perhaps a few fuel elements," namely the radioactive core of a nuclear power plant. When asked how long the company had known about the problem, he replied, somewhat helplessly: "Please bear with us, because we need time to investigate the incident." He could have offered more of an explanation.

What began as a minor technical glitch developed into a serious problem within a few days, especially for Vattenfall, the operator of the Krümmel plant. In addition to revealing a troubling degree of carelessness and mismanagement, what happened in the Krümmel reactor shows that the Swedish energy company has hardly improved its communication strategy since the last accident. Once again, the company has withheld important information and, once again, it has been hesitant to come out with the truth.

Vattenfall has consistently stressed that all safety systems were operational at Krümmel and that no radioactive leaks occurred. But this makes the political fallout from the incident all the more serious, putting Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party on the defensive with their plans to back nuclear power if they emerge victorious from this fall's parliamentary election in Germany.

The center-left Social Democrats (SPD), on the other hand, who have so far failed to come up with an inspiring issue for their campaign, could hardly believe their good fortune. Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel, a member of the SPD, referred last Friday to the incident as the "Krümmel monster" (a reference to Krümelmonster, the German name for the "Sesame Street" character Cookie Monster), while at the same time unveiling proposed legislation that would speed up the process of taking Germany's oldest reactors, including Krümmel, out of commission. "Of course, this is an election campaign," the minister said candidly, "but we have to make it clear that the CDU/CSU and the FDP are in bed with the nuclear power industry."

There has long been a lot more at stake than just the future of Krümmel. The public discussion in Germany over nuclear power now revolves around the necessary safety culture surrounding a high-risk technology, the newly erupted debate over extending the lives of reactors and the credibility of electric utilities and politicians in an election year.

According to insiders, it is clear that not only Vattenfall, but also the relevant supervisory authorities, did not provide adequate information about what had happened at Krümmel. The Social Affairs Ministry in Kiel, which is responsible for reactor safety in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, where Krümmel is located, was apparently aware of the Krümmel reactor's vulnerability to breakdowns much earlier than was officially admitted.

The damage is considerable, and it extends to the entire nuclear industry. Germany's major energy utilities see the Swedish operator's sloppy management of Krümmel, which is now coming to light, as a major fiasco.

Graphic: Incidents at the Krümmel nuclear reactor

Graphic: Incidents at the Krümmel nuclear reactor

On Tuesday of last week, Wulf Bernotat, the CEO of energy giant E.on, which owns 50 percent of the damaged reactor, wrote in a sharply worded letter to Vattenfall management in Sweden that his company was "appalled" by the handling of safety procedures at the plant. The reactor shutdown will cost E.on, as a co-owner, about €20 million ($28 million) a month.

Industry insiders also believe that this time Vattenfall will not be able to get away by sacrificing a few scapegoats, such as firing the director of the power plant. The resignation of Vattenfall CEO Lars Göran Josefsson can not be ruled out, and there is even talk in the industry that the company could lose its license to operate nuclear power plants. If that happened, E.on, as co-owner, would likely be forced to step into the breach.

The top executives of nuclear power plant operators fear that they can give up their dream of securing government approval for extending the lives of their plants. The vehemence with which Jürgen Grossmann, the head of the German utility giant RWE, insisted, in an interview with the tabloid Bild, that all German nuclear power plants are safe shows just how sensitive the issue is.

The German utility executives' fears that the safety problems at Krümmel could be far worse than previously known are not unjustified. An insider familiar with the work that was done on the Krümmel reactor described to SPIEGEL the causes of the as-yet-unexplained damage to the fuel elements. In his view, Vattenfall is "the discount chain among the nuclear energy companies," and he is convinced that "the elementary rules of our profession were broken there."

What Vattenfall nuclear division manager Züfle did not say last week was that an internal crisis meeting was held at Vattenfall with nuclear technology firms Westinghouse and Areva a few days before the Kiel nuclear regulatory agency on June 19 cleared the reactor to be started up again, after it had been shut down for two years following the last accident. The subject of the meeting was foreign bodies in the reactor.

Prior to the meeting, workers had discovered unusual objects underneath the fuel elements, which are more than 4 meters (13 feet) long. According to the insider, a "pale shimmer" was visible on photos of the objects. An ordinary rod was apparently used to extract a few large metal shavings from the reactor vessel. According to the eyewitness, technicians could not determine whether there were more metal shavings in the vessel. The shavings, which are several centimeters long and very sharp, were apparently the result of work that had been done on fittings and pipes in the power plant, and had also entered pipes in the reactor area as a result of vibrations.

To protect the reactor from such foreign objects, in accordance with internal cleaning procedures, pipe connections are normally required to be flushed out after the completion of inspection work. According to employees, however, this step was omitted because of "time constraints." The reactor was apparently started up with the metal waste lodged in some of its sensitive components.

Vattenfall spokesman Ivo Banek denies the allegation that rules were not followed. "We had the various systems cleaned," he says. At the same time, Vattenfall told SPIEGEL that "salvage equipment (e.g., a short metal rod connected to a cable) was used to recover all detectable metal shavings." On Friday evening, Vattenfall officials still claimed that they had no knowledge about the size of the metal pieces that had been retrieved.


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