Ausgabe 29/2007

Political Meltdown German Mishaps Put Nuclear Power under Scrutiny

The company at first said it was just a small fire. But the blaze at Vattenfall's Krümmel reactor has since become a political wildfire. Now, Germany's pro-nuclear energy politicians have gone into hiding.

The Krümmel nuclear power plant has highlighted the potential dangers of nuclear power.

The Krümmel nuclear power plant has highlighted the potential dangers of nuclear power.

The event featured finger sandwiches with liverwurst and salami, a Dixieland band and Chancellor Angela Merkel telling marginally funny jokes, like the one about her not being too concerned about the southern state of Baden-Württemberg's future because its residents are capable of doing just about anything, except, of course, speak German properly. When the state's environment ministry celebrated its 20th anniversary last Wednesday in Ludwigsburg, the mood was so relaxed that the governor of Baden-Württemberg, Günther Oettinger, decided to take advantage of his guests' high spirits to deliver an important message.

According to Oettinger, who belongs to Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats, nuclear energy should be part of Germany's energy mix in the future as a climate-friendly energy source. The reactors, he said, should be kept in operation longer than current plans call for -- and he is certain that the policy of shutting down Germany's nuclear power plants by 2021, passed under former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder during his coalition government with the Greens, will eventually be reversed.

It was an important issue for Oettinger, whose state derives more than half of its electricity from nuclear power plants -- a rate almost twice as high as in Germany as a whole. But his audience was not convinced. Indeed, Oettinger's comments received no applause, nor even a few nods of approval. The Baden-Württemberg governor, it seemed, was giving his speech in the wrong place and at the wrong time.

'Occasional Explosion or Fire'

Nuclear power has received a tremendous boost since climate change has made Germans suddenly fearful about the future. Regional politicians like Oettinger, Roland Koch of Hesse and Edmund Stoiber of Bavaria, as well as CDU General Secretary Ronald Pofalla, have become increasingly vocal proponents of extending the shelf life of nuclear power plants. But during the last two weeks or so, amid thick clouds of smoke enveloping a nuclear power plant in Krümmel and reports of technical failures, human error and corporate incompetence, opponents of nuclear power see their arguments gaining credence once again. Suddenly the Social Democrats, especially Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel, see themselves justified in taking the position that nuclear energy is a "risky technology." "German nuclear power plants are the safest worldwide," Gabriel said acerbically last week, "aside from the occasional explosion or fire."

Not only has Gabriel recognized an opportunity to shift public opinion away from nuclear power, he is also clearly aware of the issue's symbolic importance. By defending the movement to phase out the technology in Germany, Gabriel has assumed the role of the protector of the Schröder government's legacy. Of course, the issue also revolves around emotions, history and the right to interpret history. Was the battle against nuclear power wrong? Was the decision to phase out the technology a historical mistake, as the conservatives claim? Was it in fact an environmental mistake? Or was the decision to abandon the dangerous technology the right one, because it is in fact so difficult to control, as the Greens and Social Democrats argue?

Since the two most recent incidents-- at the reactors in Krümmel and Brunsbüttel -- became public at the beginning of the month, Gabriel has positioned himself as a leading critic of Vattenfall, the company that operates the two stricken reactors. And he has been demanding answers.

Gabriel's posturing is the type that even a few short weeks ago would have triggered automatic retorts from conservatives. But last week there was hardly a whimper from even the staunchest proponents of nuclear power. Economics Minister Michael Glos (CDU) told a small group: "One hardly even dares take a position anymore." Dietrich Austermann (CDU), the minister of economics for the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, an advocate of extending plant operating licenses, admitted that the incident at Krümmel has weighed heavily on the debate.

Proved to Be a Lie

The reason for the change in thinking is clear. Whereas most of the some 130 reactor incidents reported annually in Germany are minor and go unnoticed, smoke pouring out of a transformer as happened in Krümmel tends to attract attention. It took the fire department hours to extinguish the blaze. Even worse, the plant operator's claim that a fire in the transformer had no effect on the reactor itself proved to be a lie.

Germany's aging nuclear power plants.

Germany's aging nuclear power plants.

In short, the incident has made it clear that nuclear energy is by no means the modern, well-organized high-tech sector portrayed until recently by politicians and industry advocates. Indeed, the frequency of problems occurring at Germany's aging reactors is on the rise. Just as old cars will eventually succumb to rust, the country's nuclear power plants, built in the 1970s and 80s, are undergoing a natural aging process.

The problems are complicated by maintenance and supervision issues among aging and unmotivated employees. A dangerously lackadaisical attitude has taken hold that is making Germany's nuclear power plants increasingly unsafe. Most incidents to date have proven to be relatively minor, and yet each new incident becomes yet another link in a chain of problems with the potential to end in a serious accident.

As if the nuclear industry weren't facing enough problems with the recent incidents, representatives of the district attorney's office in the northern city of Lübeck took matters into their own hands last Friday when they appeared at Krümmel plant to get a clear answer on who exactly is responsible for operations at the plant. Vattenfall, the plant's owner, had refused to promptly provide the district attorney with the relevant information. Uwe Döring, the justice minister in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, said that he was "speechless" over Vattenfall's response, "especially coming from a company fighting to preserve its credibility."

Ignited Several Tons of Transformer Oil

With Vattenfall coming under growing pressure, company executives last week were even considering a plan to transfer the operating licenses for its two nuclear reactors to E.on, which is both a partner and a competitor. The executives reason that because the Düsseldorf-based energy giant, which owns 50 percent of the Krümmel reactor and 33 percent of the Brunsbüttel plant, has a better reputation when it comes to operating nuclear reactors, an E.on takeover would help prevent the plants from being shut down. The two companies have already entered into serious talks over the plan, but E.on plans to wait until the incidents at Krümmel have been fully investigated before reaching a decision.

According to the initial report issued by Vattenfall Europe, Germany's third-largest energy utility, a phenomenon known as arcing caused a fire at 3:02 p.m. on June 29. The fire ignited several tons of transformer oil, which normally circles around the voltage transformer in sealed metal pipes, cooling the transformer. According to a statement issued the same day by the head of the nuclear division of Vattenfall's German subsidiary, Bruno Thomauske, the problem was under control and the safety of the local population was not endangered "at any time."


© DER SPIEGEL 29/2007
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