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Vulnerable to Plane Crashes: German Nuclear Reactor Safety Test Finds Flaws

None of Germany's 17 nuclear plants is protected from a crash by a heavy plane, a commission concluded on Tuesday after weeks of safety checks. But it did not recommend that any should be taken offline immediately. The government said it wants to postpone a shutdown until alternative sources of energy are found.

A nuclear power plant in Brokdorf, Germany. None of the plants is protected against a heavy plane crash, a safety commission has found. Zoom
DPA

A nuclear power plant in Brokdorf, Germany. None of the plants is protected against a heavy plane crash, a safety commission has found.

Germany's nuclear plants do not need to be taken offline immediately, Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, who is also responsible for energy, said on Tuesday at the presentation of a report by a government-appointed commission that reviewed the safety of the reactors.

However, while the experts gave no clear recommendation that reactors should be shut down immediately, the stress test found that none of the reactors is protected against crashes by heavy planes, and seven are not adequately equipped to cope with a crash of even a light aircraft.

"According to the report, it is responsible not to exit immediately," Röttgen told a news conference. "There is no argument why we should go head over heels today, to exit now, on technical and safety grounds."

Chancellor Angela Merkel ordered the review following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March. She imposed a three-month moratorium on her controversial decision last year to extend the lifetimes of the plants, originally due to have been taken offline by around 2021 under legistlation that had been passed by the government of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, whose center-left Social Democrats governed together with the environmentalist Green Party until 2005.

Merkel was responding to an upsurge in public fears of nuclear power after Fukushima. She launched two commissions to make recommendations on the future of the nuclear industry and has pledged to present a revised energy plan in June.

Four Plants May Stay Offline for Good

Röttgen said the government planned to find a way to get out of nuclear power as quickly as possible while ensuring that the resulting loss of electricity generation could be replaced.

The commission's report said it was feasible that the older plants could be upgraded to improve their resistance to a plane crash. The seven oldest reactors were shut down in March pending the outcome of the safety review, and it remains unclear how many of them will return to operation once the moratorium ends in mid-June.

However, Röttgen hinted that four of the oldest reactors -- Biblis A and B, Brunsbüttel and Philippsburg I -- may stay shut for good because they failed to meet the safety requirements even for a small plane crash.

Some 100 experts took part in the safety review to test how well equipped the plants were to cope with natural disaster or terrorist attacks.

The commission also criticized the safety arrangements at Fukushima. "Based on what is known so far we have to note that this wasn't an incident that wasn't conceivable, wasn't predictable," said the head of the commission, Rudolf Wieland. Given the region's susceptibility to earthquakes, the possibility of such an incident should have been factored into the standard emergency response system, he said.

Criticism of Fukushima Safety Standards

The German government will evaluate the safety report, along with a separate report by an ethics commission, before it makes a decision on nuclear power.

The ethics commission -- whose findings are to be made public May 28 -- is expected to conclude that the country should close down all its nuclear power stations by 2021, a number of German newspapers and wire services reported last week, citing unnamed sources.

The Fukushima accident contributed to a stinging defeat for Merkel's conservatives in a key regional election in the rich southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg on March 27.

The safety report drew criticism from opposition parties. The leader of the center-left Social Democrats, Sigmar Gabriel, said the commission had not been given enough time to conduct a proper review. "You need one to one-and-a-half years to thoroughly examine a plant," Gabriel, a former environment minister, told public broadcaster ZDF.

The checks had been conducted based on safety standards that were 30 years old and were therefore out of date, Gabriel said, adding that it was "irresponsible" that the government wasn't applying the most modern safety standards for nuclear reactors.

The parliamentary group leader for the opposition Greens, Jürgen Trittin, called the test results "shocking" and said the seven oldest plants should stay offline. The Green Party's national co-head, Claudia Roth, said it was feasible to close down all the plants by 2017.

cro -- with wire reports

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