'It Was Like the Reactor Was in a Shaker' German Nuclear Inspectors Remember Fukushima

When the nuclear disaster happened at Fukushima last March, two German men were working on site. They spoke with SPIEGEL about the harrowing experience and the consequences of the catastrophe.

Gordon Hünies (l) and Robert Meister (r) were working at Fukushima Daiichi the day of the disaster.
Armin Brosch/ DER SPIEGEL

Gordon Hünies (l) and Robert Meister (r) were working at Fukushima Daiichi the day of the disaster.

Before Gordon Hünies started working at a nuclear power plant, he was a professional bass player in a rock band. These days he works for the power company Areva checking pipelines and welding seams at nuclear plants for rips and changes in composition. On March 11, 2011, Hünies was working at Fukushima Daiichi when disaster struck. It was probably the worst experience of his life, he says.

One year after the catastrophe, Hünies and his team leader, Robert Meister, who was working with him at Fukushima, met with SPIEGEL to talk about the experience.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Hünies, how did you go from performing in a rock band to working in the nuclear energy industry?

Hünies: It was time to end my academic vacation. But I didn't switch to the nuclear energy industry. I am a materials inspector, not a nuclear physicist.

SPIEGEL: Your work led you to Fukushima. What did you do there?

Meister: We wanted to check the welding seams on the reactor pressure vessel. But just as we started working, the ground shook, as if someone had put the reactor in a shaker. I saw pipes as thick as trees swinging back and forth.

SPIEGEL: Were you afraid that the reactor pressure vessel would rupture?

Hünies: I was more afraid that a screwdriver would fall on my head. To be honest, it was exactly because I was in a nuclear power plant that I wasn't afraid. I know how thick the walls are. I would have been more afraid in a supermarket.

SPIEGEL: Did the plant burn, hiss, or smoke?

Meister: No, it looked good. The destruction came with the first tsunami, but we didn't know that. We climbed up on a 30-meter tall hill and went into a house. We saw the second wave.

SPIEGEL: The water destroyed the emergency power generators of the nuclear plant. The cooling system of the fuel assemblies broke down. Did you have any idea that was happening?

Meister: No.

SPIEGEL: And the Japanese?

Hünies: We speak just enough Japanese to order a pizza, so we could not follow their discussions. At 3 a.m. the Japanese told us to come into the crisis management room, because radioactivity has been detected outside.

SPIEGEL: Were you afraid?

Hünies: No, we thought they just needed to release pressure?

SPIEGEL: Just release pressure?

Hünies: We already thought that there might have been problems with the cooling of the fuel assemblies, and that pressure in the inner-part of the reactor pressure vessel would get too high.

SPIEGEL: The discharged air formed the first radioactive cloud. What was the mood like in the crisis management room?

Meister: The Japanese sat lined up at their desks in front of their computers.

Hünies: Every few minutes the boss stood up and made announcements with a red megaphone like a lifeguard.

SPIEGEL: Four hours after the earthquake the fuel rods in Reactor 1 began to melt. The Japanese must have known that.

Hünies: I can't judge that. But I did wonder a little about how quiet they all were.

Meister: At 6 a.m. we were all evacuated by bus.

SPIEGEL: Did you have radioactive contamination?

Meister: No, I did not, and none of my nine colleagues did, either.

SPIEGEL: Were you afraid of radiation poisoning?

Meister: It is an uneasy feeling.

SPIEGEL: Why do you actually work in the nuclear industry?

Meister: I check materials. We also examine the wings of airplanes and the axles of ICE (high speed) trains.

SPIEGEL: Is it exciting, to look over reactor pressure vessels for tears?

Meister: The team is good, and we work a lot with robots. One colleague said our job is like operating model trains, only bigger.

SPIEGEL: And more dangerous.

Meister: I wouldn't say that. Does my work offer more dangers than work in the chemical industry?

SPIEGEL: We're talking about Fukushima here.

Meister: The damage is immense. But when we were sitting in the crisis management room, we saw images on TV of a refinery that was on fire. More people probably died there than in Fukushima.

SPIEGEL: Do you understand the German fear of nuclear energy?

Meister: In Germany, reactors are being taken off-line, where what happened in Fukushima would not be possible.

SPIEGEL: What is not possible?

Meister: A nuclear accident caused by a tsunami. Even if a tsunami were to happen in the North Sea, our nuclear facilities are better fortified.

SPIEGEL: Is nuclear energy safe?

Meister: Yes, otherwise I would have to quit working in the branch right away.

SPIEGEL: And Fukushima?

Meister: That was a catastrophe.

SPIEGEL: That is a contradiction.

Meister: At the end of the day, it's about having enough power. Solar energy, wind and coal are much more expensive than nuclear energy.

SPIEGEL: So we should accept the dangers of nuclear energy because of the costs?

Meister: No, but I don't see any danger here. We should have a basic load for electricity needs. If we could do that with other energy forms, we should. But we have no better options.

SPIEGEL: The tsunami was the blind spot of the Japanese nuclear industry. Who can say that Germany doesn't have a blind spot?

Meister: I check materials. I can't say in detail how the German facilities are secured.

SPIEGEL: But without people like you there would be no nuclear plants.

Meister: Yes, that is something positive. I can contribute directly to security.

SPIEGEL: Did Fukushima change your view of nuclear energy?

Meister: No.

SPIEGEL: What did your wife say, as she took you into her arms after Fukushima?

Meister: She cried. We held on to each other and didn't let go. Maybe something did change in me because of Fukushima. When I travel now, I have the feeling that it is harder to leave my wife behind.

SPIEGEL: Where does your wife work?

Meister: In the nuclear industry.

Interview conducted by Takis Würger; Translated from the German by Mary Beth Warner

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