Atomic Nightmare Krümmel Accident Puts Question Mark over Germany's Nuclear Future

The recent accident at the Krümmel nuclear power plant in northern Germany was more serious than was previously known. Anglea Merkel's Christian Democrats are now finding themselves on the defensive with their plans to extend the life of German nuclear reactors.
Von SPIEGEL Staff

Ernst Michael Züfle should never sit down at a poker table, at least not when real money is at stake. When asked last Thursday about damage to the reactor of the Krümmel nuclear power plant,  Züfle, the head of the nuclear division of Swedish energy company Vattenfall, swallowed audibly, nervously rolled his pen between his fingers and avoided making eye contact.

The Krümmel nuclear plant near Hamburg: The reactor had to be shut down on July 4 following a short circuit in a transformer.

The Krümmel nuclear plant near Hamburg: The reactor had to be shut down on July 4 following a short circuit in a transformer.

Foto: FABIAN BIMMER/ AP

It was already awkward enough for Vattenfall that the accident, which resembled a similar breakdown two years ago, occurred after it had spent €300 million ($420 million) upgrading the plant. As in the 2007 incident, this time there was also a short circuit in a transformer. The reactor, which had just been started up, quickly had to be shut down again on Saturday, July 4.

Züfle was also forced to admit that the accident in the nuclear power plant was more serious than previously known. In addition to the transformer problem, he conceded, there was damage to "perhaps a few fuel elements," namely the radioactive core of a nuclear power plant. When asked how long the company had known about the problem, he replied, somewhat helplessly: "Please bear with us, because we need time to investigate the incident." He could have offered more of an explanation.

What began as a minor technical glitch developed into a serious problem within a few days, especially for Vattenfall, the operator of the Krümmel plant. In addition to revealing a troubling degree of carelessness and mismanagement, what happened in the Krümmel reactor shows that the Swedish energy company has hardly improved its communication strategy since the last accident. Once again, the company has withheld important information and, once again, it has been hesitant to come out with the truth.

Vattenfall has consistently stressed that all safety systems were operational at Krümmel and that no radioactive leaks occurred. But this makes the political fallout from the incident all the more serious, putting Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party on the defensive with their plans to back nuclear power if they emerge victorious from this fall's parliamentary election in Germany.

The center-left Social Democrats (SPD), on the other hand, who have so far failed to come up with an inspiring issue for their campaign, could hardly believe their good fortune. Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel, a member of the SPD, referred last Friday to the incident as the "Krümmel monster" (a reference to Krümelmonster, the German name for the "Sesame Street" character Cookie Monster), while at the same time unveiling proposed legislation that would speed up the process of taking Germany's oldest reactors, including Krümmel, out of commission. "Of course, this is an election campaign," the minister said candidly, "but we have to make it clear that the CDU/CSU and the FDP are in bed with the nuclear power industry."

There has long been a lot more at stake than just the future of Krümmel. The public discussion in Germany over nuclear power now revolves around the necessary safety culture surrounding a high-risk technology, the newly erupted debate over extending the lives of reactors and the credibility of electric utilities and politicians in an election year.

According to insiders, it is clear that not only Vattenfall, but also the relevant supervisory authorities, did not provide adequate information about what had happened at Krümmel. The Social Affairs Ministry in Kiel, which is responsible for reactor safety in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, where Krümmel is located, was apparently aware of the Krümmel reactor's vulnerability to breakdowns much earlier than was officially admitted.

The damage is considerable, and it extends to the entire nuclear industry. Germany's major energy utilities see the Swedish operator's sloppy management of Krümmel, which is now coming to light, as a major fiasco.

On Tuesday of last week, Wulf Bernotat, the CEO of energy giant E.on, which owns 50 percent of the damaged reactor, wrote in a sharply worded letter to Vattenfall management in Sweden that his company was "appalled" by the handling of safety procedures at the plant. The reactor shutdown will cost E.on, as a co-owner, about €20 million ($28 million) a month.

Industry insiders also believe that this time Vattenfall will not be able to get away by sacrificing a few scapegoats, such as firing the director of the power plant. The resignation of Vattenfall CEO Lars Göran Josefsson can not be ruled out, and there is even talk in the industry that the company could lose its license to operate nuclear power plants. If that happened, E.on, as co-owner, would likely be forced to step into the breach.

The top executives of nuclear power plant operators fear that they can give up their dream of securing government approval for extending the lives of their plants. The vehemence with which Jürgen Grossmann, the head of the German utility giant RWE, insisted, in an interview with the tabloid Bild, that all German nuclear power plants are safe shows just how sensitive the issue is.

The German utility executives' fears that the safety problems at Krümmel could be far worse than previously known are not unjustified. An insider familiar with the work that was done on the Krümmel reactor described to SPIEGEL the causes of the as-yet-unexplained damage to the fuel elements. In his view, Vattenfall is "the discount chain among the nuclear energy companies," and he is convinced that "the elementary rules of our profession were broken there."

What Vattenfall nuclear division manager Züfle did not say last week was that an internal crisis meeting was held at Vattenfall with nuclear technology firms Westinghouse and Areva a few days before the Kiel nuclear regulatory agency on June 19 cleared the reactor to be started up again, after it had been shut down for two years following the last accident. The subject of the meeting was foreign bodies in the reactor.

Prior to the meeting, workers had discovered unusual objects underneath the fuel elements, which are more than 4 meters (13 feet) long. According to the insider, a "pale shimmer" was visible on photos of the objects. An ordinary rod was apparently used to extract a few large metal shavings from the reactor vessel. According to the eyewitness, technicians could not determine whether there were more metal shavings in the vessel. The shavings, which are several centimeters long and very sharp, were apparently the result of work that had been done on fittings and pipes in the power plant, and had also entered pipes in the reactor area as a result of vibrations.

To protect the reactor from such foreign objects, in accordance with internal cleaning procedures, pipe connections are normally required to be flushed out after the completion of inspection work. According to employees, however, this step was omitted because of "time constraints." The reactor was apparently started up with the metal waste lodged in some of its sensitive components.

Vattenfall spokesman Ivo Banek denies the allegation that rules were not followed. "We had the various systems cleaned," he says. At the same time, Vattenfall told SPIEGEL that "salvage equipment (e.g., a short metal rod connected to a cable) was used to recover all detectable metal shavings." On Friday evening, Vattenfall officials still claimed that they had no knowledge about the size of the metal pieces that had been retrieved.

In Hot Water

When foreign objects swirl through a reactor, which happens in particular after an emergency shutdown, they can damage the fuel rod casings, where the uranium is stored. The consequences can be serious, because fuel elements that have been damaged or bent as a result of age may compromise the "safe operation" of the plant during, for example, another emergency shutdown -- of the kind that became necessary following the recent transformer short-circuit.

If additional metal pieces are found during tests performed on the reactor, which began on Friday when the reactor cover was opened, it may be necessary to remove the entire core from the reactor vessel. "Vattenfall can already order some castors for temporary storage," says someone involved in the investigation, in a reference to the "castor" casks used for storage and transport of radioactive material.

According to a member of the German government's reactor safety commission, smaller foreign objects have also been found occasionally in other reactors, but larger foreign objects in the reactor pose a "serious problem." The safety official says he is unaware of any similar cases ever having occurred in German reactors. A realistic estimate of the cost of cleaning a reactor, including shutdown costs, would range into the triple-digit millions, says the official.

Many details surrounding the series of mishaps are still unknown. Nevertheless, the Social Democrats are already demanding action be taken. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the party's candidate for chancellor in September elections, joined the chorus of those calling for a permanent shutdown of Krümmel. But the SPD's schadenfreude could prove to be premature. Gitta Trauernicht, the Schleswig-Holstein minister of social affairs who is in charge of nuclear energy for the state, is also in hot water over the affair -- and she belongs to the SPD.

Trauernicht sharply criticized Vattenfall's information policy, despite the fact that she could have known about problems with the trouble-prone transformer in the reactor. In December 2007, experts from the northern branch of Germany's Technical Inspection Association (TÜV), the Kiel ministry and both Siemens and Vattenfall performed several so-called partial discharge tests on the transformer in question. The tests, which are used to measure short-circuit risk, indicated a value that was five times as high as the normal value. This prompted the inspectors to note in their inspection report that further tests were necessary "in relation to starting up the reactor."

But the outside experts took their testing equipment with them when they left. After that, Vattenfall neglected to install its own instruments. The procedure specified in the "Startup Notice" issued by the nuclear regulators in Kiel on June 19 is relatively vague. In a section titled "Determining the Usability of the Transformer," the document reads: "Partial discharge tests are envisioned for machine transformer AT02 during the course of resumption of normal operation." But the instructions did not state that such tests were required or prescribed, giving the impression that the tests could easily be dispensed with.

It is clear that the ministry did not check to determine whether the procedure arranged with Vattenfall was in fact performed. Such an inspection was not justifiable under nuclear regulatory law, says a spokesman for Trauernicht. But that is only half the truth, because 2007 accidents in the Brunsbüttel and Krümmel nuclear power plants led experts, nuclear regulators and operators to approve an entire package of measures to regulate continued operation. These measures also included procedures with no justification in nuclear regulatory law.

The German Environment Ministry has long believed that legal restraints under nuclear regulatory law should also apply to transformers and generators. "Technologically speaking, there are many interactions between the transformer and the safety of the plant," says Dieter Majer, a subdivision head in charge of nuclear safety at the Environment Ministry. For this reason, he says, it was correct for the problems with the transformer to be mentioned in the applicable notice from the nuclear regulatory agency.

But the nuclear regulators at the ministry in Kiel relied on Vattenfall, which had assured the officials that it planned to perform the tests. "In light of everything we have experienced with Vattenfall in the past, this sort of behavior is shockingly naïve," says a member of the reactor safety commission.

Perhaps the motivations are much more straightforward than one would think. Schleswig-Holstein earns at least €35 million ($49 million) in annual revenues just from surface water fees from three nuclear power plants, Brunsbüttel, Brokdorf and Krümmel -- provided they are up and running. For a state with a current budget deficit of €600 million ($840 million), this is a lot of money. In other words, every day a reactor is connected to the grid in Schleswig-Holstein is a good day.

The inconsistencies in the behavior of the Kiel inspectors are also reflected in federal politics in Germany. The debate over the series of problems at Krümmel and the safety of German nuclear power plants reveals even more contradictions, particularly in the nuclear policies of the CDU/CSU and the FDP.

According to the CDU/CSU's election platform, which Chancellor Merkel presented to the public shortly before the weekend when the Krümmel accident occurred, "nuclear power is, for the present, an indispensible part of a balanced energy mix." Because solar and wind energy are not yet fully available, the document reads, the CDU/CSU supports "an extension of the operating lives of the safe German plants." The FDP holds similar views. But now the Krümmel accident has sparked a debate within the two pro-nuclear parties over what exactly the resolutions mean. There have been vehement protests against demands to allow nuclear power plants to continue operation for an almost unlimited period of time.

Günther Oettinger, the governor of the southwestern state of Baden-Wurttemberg and a member of the CDU, has proposed leaving nuclear power plants connected to the grid for as long as safe operation is possible. Even Krümmel is a "power plant with a future," he said last week.

A look at the United States shows what this could mean. US nuclear power plant operators are staunch advocates of "life beyond 60" for their plants. Almost all are trying to get their operating licenses extended to 60 years, and the US nuclear regulatory agency (NRC) is already planning another round of negotiations for the period beyond 60 years. Deputy FDP Chairman Andreas Pinkwart even says that he "cannot rule out the construction of brand-new nuclear power plants."

A New Lease of Life?

Resistance is starting to form against all this pro-nuclear activity. The CDU state government in the western state of Saarland, which will run for reelection in late August, even wants to speed up the pace of shutting down Germany's oldest reactors. "It is very important that we disconnect power plants like Krümmel as early as possible," says the state's environment minister, Stefan Mörsdorf. "Their 'residual electricity volumes' can then be transferred to other, more modern reactors."

Under the 2002 German law regulating the decommissioning of nuclear power plants, it is stipulated that for the nuclear power plants currently in operation, the right for their further operation will expire after the production of a certain amount of electricity, known as the "'residual electricity volume," which is fixed individually for each plant. The nuclear phaseout law was introduced by the SPD-Green government under then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

At the same time Mörsdorf, a Christian Democratic, wants to leave the question open as to whether the residual electricity volumes now allowable by law can even be raised. According to Mörsdorf, "We won't be able to talk about that until later, perhaps not even until after the next legislative period." The question of whether the government ought to "add another five years" to the lives of nuclear power plants should not be answered, says Mörsdorf, until it becomes clearer how quickly the development of renewable forms of energy will proceed and how reliable natural gas shipments from Russia are.

Bavarian Environment Minister Markus Söder, a member of the Christian Social Union, the sister party to Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, also says that unlimited reactor lifespans are "out of the question," although he advocates extending lifespans "across the board, for all safe reactors, by at least eight to 10 years compared with the (SPD-Green) exit plan." After that, says Söder, Germans will have to "see how renewable energy has developed."

Christian von Boetticher, the Christian Democratic environment minister of Schleswig-Holstein, where the Krümmel reactor is located, has a somewhat different argument: "We must make it clear that we will not automatically extend the life of every nuclear power plant." The CDU/CSU, says Boetticher, must "take a critical look at all nuclear power plants in Germany." The FDP in Schleswig-Holstein, on the other hand, is fundamentally opposed to extending plants' operating lives. It favors the SPD-Green Party plans to phase out nuclear power altogether and would not even allow Krümmel to be reconnected to the grid.

There are also major differences over how Merkel plans to make lifespan extension more appealing to the public. According to the CDU/CSU election platform, the additional profits generated by the measure would be used primarily to support energy research and lower electricity prices.

No Solution

A lot of money is at stake. Nuclear power plants, most of which have already been fully depreciated, are powerful moneymakers for their operators. According to internal industry calculations, they produce annual profits of €7-8 billion ($9.8-11.2 billion), assuming electricity prices are high. If their lifespans were extended by 10 or 15 years, total extra profits would amount to €70-120 billion ($98-168 billion).

But who will monitor the "eco dividend" touted by Bavarian Environment Minister Söder? Should Germany's four major electric utilities be allowed to use the profits to solidify their power in the market, or should the money be spent on non-profit projects? As with the issue of plant lifespan, the CDU/CSU and the FDP lack a clear position on the use of potential profits.

There is another problem lurking in the background that has citizens worried: the unresolved question of disposal. For four years, the CDU/CSU thwarted attempts by Environment Minister Gabriel to find, with the help of scientists, a location where highly radioactive waste could be stored safely. Southern Germany was also included in their search for sites, which was met with resistance from conservative politicians there.

Stephan Kohler, the head of the German Energy Agency, who is often suspected by environmentalists of being on the side of big business, sees the unresolved question of waste disposal as the key argument against an extension of lifespans. "Just because we will have to find a solution eventually doesn't mean we can merrily continue producing radioactive waste," he says, noting that scientists have already spent the last four decades searching for a way to safely dispose of the waste. "It is not the fault of the German anti-nuclear movement that we haven't found a solution yet," says Kohler.

The CDU/CSU and the FDP are pinning their hopes on a single site: Gorleben, a name which has been synonymous in Germany with the conflict over nuclear energy for more than 30 years. The exploratory mine has already consumed €1.5 billion ($2.1 billion) in costs, which suggests that a fait accompli has already been achieved in Gorleben under the pretense of research. Officials at the Environment Ministry say that the exploration of the salt dome at Gorleben has already cost considerably more money than would have been needed for an analysis which did not have a predetermined result in mind. The facility in Gorleben, say ministry officials, has been designed so its dimensions are also sufficient to satisfy the requirements of the planned nuclear waste storage site.

The way the CDU/CSU describes the final storage issue in its election platform is fitting: "The CDU and CSU want an immediate lifting of the moratorium on investigation of the Gorleben site, so that the interim storage facilities at nuclear power plants can be closed as quickly as possible." This sounds much more like a decision which has already been made than a genuine investigation.

However, placing so much emphasis on Gorleben is dangerous, and possibly very expensive, because a court could very well reject the choice of the site, made as it was without clear criteria, alternatives or previously defined safety standards. That could spell the loss of billions in investments and decades of valuable time expended on the search for alternatives.

Given the heated discussion over nuclear power, an incident that occurred in Gorleben on the same Saturday as the Krümmel accident seems emblematic. The short circuit in the Krümmel nuclear power plant caused, ironically, a power outage in the site's exploration mine. In the future, the Federal Office for Radiation Protection plans to supply green power to the nuclear site.

PETRA BORNHÖFT, MARKUS DEGGERICH, FRANK DOHMEN, SEBASTIAN KNAUER, GUNTHER LATSCH, CHRISTIAN SALEWSKI, CHRISTIAN SCHWÄGERL, SAMIHA SHAFY

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan