Hermann Behmel, 71, is no environmental activist. In fact the geologist, who teaches at the University of Stuttgart, has nothing against nuclear power plants.
"My only problem with them," he says, "is when they are in the wrong place."
The government of Germany's southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg asked him for his advice 40 years ago, when plans were on the table to build the Neckarwestheim 2 nuclear power plant, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Stuttgart. Behmel and two colleagues evaluated the site from a geological perspective between 1974 and 1976. Their assessment was unanimous. "The place is a geological time bomb," says Behmel.
But the plant was built nevertheless. The geological assessment disappeared into a file cabinet and Behmel stopped receiving commissions from the government. Today, as he watches images of the nuclear disaster in Japan flicker across his TV screen, he is reminded of all the frustrations he encountered back in the mid-1970s.
'All You Need Here Is a Sinkhole'
"We don't even need an earthquake in Neckarwestheim to have a major accident," says Behmel, who has a white mustache and wears a blue tweed jacket. "All you need here is a sinkhole."
What the state government stubbornly ignored at the time is no secret among geologists: Neckarwestheim sits atop an old quarry, complete with porous layers of gypsum and limestone. "About 1,000 cubic meters of hollow spaces form under the plant each year," Behmel explains. The spaces form when groundwater flushes away the porous rock or it crumbles on its own.
In November 2002, a crater 18 meters (59 feet) deep opened up in a field about five kilometers from Neckarwestheim. It happened "completely without warning," says Behmel.
The plant's cooling tower has already sunk by 40 centimeters. "If the layers of rock give way here, all of the cables could be ripped out," the geologist warns.
In the wake of the Japanese reactor catastrophe, Behmel's expertise could be in demand once again. Now, the state government in Baden-Württemberg -- governed by the conservative CDU in coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) -- and Chancellor Angela Merkel suddenly want to know everything about the risks associated with German nuclear power plants -- particularly those posed by nature.
Most of the risks Behmel and other scientists have been warning about for decades have been viewed as negligible residual risk -- about as likely as a comet striking the Earth. And for sticklers for detail, the nuclear engineers were happy to note that the "mean core damage frequency" of a boiling water reactor, for example, is "2.2 x 10-6/a." In other words, this particular type of reactor is likely to explode once every 455,000 years.
Meltdown Just as Possible in Germany
But now, only 25 years after the disaster at Chernobyl, the next nuclear power plant is already on fire. Ironically, the accident has occurred in Japan, a country known for its painstaking attention to detail, which points to the obvious conclusion that a meltdown is just as possible in Germany.
This, for example, is the upshot of a risk assessment by Wolfgang Renneberg, the former director of the reactor safety and radiation protection division of the German Environment Ministry. "None of the plants operating today would satisfy the current international design requirements for new nuclear power plants," he writes. "We should not fool ourselves into believing that we would be able to control a meltdown."
Renneberg also believes that it is technically almost impossible to bring German reactors up to the latest safety standards. "It's like taking an old Citroen Deux Chevaux and trying to install the crumple zone of a modern car," he says. "You can't do it."
The most serious safety issues in German nuclear power plants have been known for a long time. The weakness have been carefully categorized and enumerated in straightforward lists, and are in documents that have been sitting in the files of government agencies for years.
The behavior of the nuclear regulatory agency in the western state of Hesse, which is responsible for the Biblis reactors, has been particularly negligent. In 1987, a potentially dangerous situation unfolded when radioactive cooling fluid leaked from the Biblis A reactor near Frankfurt.
When the public learned of the incident, then-state Environment Minister (and declared supporter of nuclear power) Karlheinz Weimar (CDU) ordered a comprehensive safety analysis. Experts prepared a long list of 49 technical improvements. These safety measures were to be implemented "by no later than the end of the inspection beginning in 1993," Weimar wrote in a 1991 directive.
Only Partially Implemented
But to this day, 20 years later, only 27 of the suggested improvements have been fully implemented. The others, according to the Hessian Environment Ministry, are "being worked on." Seven of the recommendations, which were designed to improve earthquake safety, such as upgrading the backup power systems, were only partially implemented.
Some regulatory officials are so apathetic that they don't even react when a plant's operator proposes fixing an urgent safety problem. For example, in a letter dated Sept. 5, 2007, the energy provider EnBW applied for permission to construct new buildings for backup generators and install a so-called emergency boration system, which provides a tool that was used last week to fight the impending meltdown in Fukushima.
The officials still haven't responded to the EnBW letter. Oskar Grözinger, the head of the state regulatory agency, now says that the cost of the new buildings would be out of proportion with the remaining life of the plant -- as if he were the electric utility's chief accountant.
Such apathy is now a thing of the past. Last week, the Neckarwestheim 1 reactor was shut down, along with six others, as a result of the nuclear moratorium announced by the Berlin government. An uncharacteristically forceful Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen (CDU) said that in the future German reactors would have to comply with requirements that they be protected against "combinations of events," like earthquakes and large-scale power outages.
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