Nuclear Headache Task of Decommissioning Plants Is Herculean

Japanese journalists visit the site of the Lubmin nuclear power plant, decommissioned 23 years ago, which is currently being dismantled in Germany.

Japanese journalists visit the site of the Lubmin nuclear power plant, decommissioned 23 years ago, which is currently being dismantled in Germany.


Part 2: More Waste than Germany Can Store?

As if there weren't already enough outstanding problems, a new type of nuclear waste has emerged for which there is still no final destination: graphite waste and depleted uranium that can't be sent to the Konrad mining shaft.

Instead, these materials that have been thoroughly contaminated with radionuclides will most likely have to be buried in a future final repository for highly radioactive waste. Germany's Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) estimates that there are up to 105,500 cubic meters of such waste. Until now, awareness of this problem has been largely limited to nuclear experts.

This could have unpleasant consequences for Germany. "In the worst case scenario, there won't be enough space for this type of highly radioactive waste in the storage facility," warns independent nuclear expert Wolfgang Neumann of Hanover. "Then we'll have to look for a third final repository," he concludes. The German Environment Ministry is also keeping this option open, although officially only two sites are planned.

Germany's four main energy companies apparently see no problem, though, in the decommissioning of nuclear power plants, at least that's the conclusion drawn by a reference study that they commissioned from an engineering company called NIS-Ingenieursgesellschaft. Until recently, the results of this study have been kept under wraps by the German Environment Ministry. Following a number of insistent requests by Green Party parliamentarian Sylvia Kotting-Uhl, she finally received a copy of the report in which the experts play down the problem. The "decommissioning of Germany's light-water reactors" is "assured," they wrote, adding that the impact on people and the environment is "negligible."

The engineers see the decommissioning timetable as a simple enough matter, at least in theory. First, the fuel rods have to cool off during what is known as the post-operational phase. Then there are two possibilities: Either decommissioning begins immediately or the reactor is mothballed. "Safe containment" is the name of the process by which the remainder of the reactor is left standing for up to 30 years until the radiation inside the building is further reduced.

A Business Model Erodes

But critics of Germany's nuclear industry are pushing for a quicker solution. They fear that the operating utility companies may be bankrupt before the power plants have been dismantled. Their concerns are not unfounded. After all, Germany's Energiewende -- Germany's plan to phase out nuclear energy and massively increase its reliance on renewable sources -- is eroding the business model of the former electricity monopolists. At the same time, energy giants such as E.on have billions in debts. Industry insiders estimate that it will cost roughly €1 billion ($1.3 billion) to decommission a single nuclear reactor.

To avoid leaving it up to the state to absorb these costs, the owners of nuclear power plants are bound by law to put aside money in their annual budgets for the decommissioning phase. There is currently roughly €30 billion earmarked for this purpose. But critics note that these provisions only stand on paper. "If the company goes broke, the billions for decommissioning are also gone," warns Green Party parliamentarian Kotting-Uhl.

The likelihood of this happening has increased with the reactors owned by Sweden's Vattenfall company in Krümmel and Brunsbüttel, near Hamburg. The Swedish state-owned company has transferred the risk to its German subsidiary.

Consequently, Kotting-Uhl is calling for a national decommissioning fund for nuclear power plants and legislation requiring companies to pay into it. Models for such an initiative can be found in Switzerland and Sweden. But Environment Minister Altmaier rejects the notion. He fears that the companies could use this to buy their way out of their responsibilities. If the decommissioning turns out to be more expensive than planned, the state could be forced to pick up the tab for the difference. Regulations on insolvency insurance could help, but there's not enough time to introduce them before the German general elections in September 2013.

In addition to financial worries, officials in Germany are very concerned about the issue of which engineers and nuclear physicists will ultimately be responsible for moving the waste to its final underground destination. "Ever since the 1990s, we have observed a rapidly declining number of students" in this area, complains the head of Germany's Federal Office for Radiation Protection, Wolfram König.

"The German federal government and the states have to turn around this trend," he says, and promptly makes a promise: "Anyone who starts studying can count on having a job until they retire."

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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morgleman 05/10/2013
1. Listen to this programme
5 minutes to produce. 5000 years to decay Listen in here
valamhic 09/09/2013
2. valamhic
They are fooling themselves if them thing they can replace nuclear/fossil fuel generation with wind and solar. What will they do on a calm night?
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