Is Germany Prepared? German Nuclear Plants Not Immune to Security Risks

A fireman takes part in a disaster management exercise near the Krümmel nuclear power plant near Hamburg in 2005.

A fireman takes part in a disaster management exercise near the Krümmel nuclear power plant near Hamburg in 2005.

Part 2: The Best and the Worst

From now on, nuclear power plants will also be required to have four backup power systems, and each one must be capable of providing sufficient backup power on its own. The government is suddenly insisting that the reactors are brought in line with the "current state of science and technology."

This rhetoric is completely new. After the former Social Democratic (SPD) and Green Party coalition government voted in 2002 to phase out nuclear power, the electricity industry stopped making significant investments in the safety of its power plants. "We've been at a standstill for some time when it comes to safety," says Renneberg. This didn't even change last fall, when the current governing coalition in Berlin ratified plans to extend operating licenses for many nuclear power plants.

Two types of nuclear power plants are currently in use in Germany: boiling water and pressurized water reactors. They stem from different generations, but even the newest plants were built in the 1980s. None of the German plants would withstand a situation like the one in Japan, where all cooling systems failed. There are also significant differences in quality. Some plants are in poor condition while others are in better shape.

A member of the German Reactor Safety Commission has prepared a list of the best and worst power plants for SPIEGEL. At the bottom of the heap are the Brunsbüttel and Isar 1 nuclear power plants, followed by Philippsburg 1 and Neckarwestheim 1. The better plants include Emsland, Neckarwestheim 2 and Isar 2.

Terrorism Threats

From the perspective of the operators, however, all plants are equally safe. This was the case before the Japanese accident, when EnBW was still praising Neckarwestheim 1, now shut down, saying that it could last another 60 years. The attitude remains pervasive today. "If the plants weren't safe, they wouldn't be operating today," RWE-Atom executive Gerd Jäger said testily after being told to shut down the Biblis reactors.

Which nuclear plants could survive the impact of a plane crash was long a state secret. The official explanation was that the government didn't want to aid terrorists in selecting potential targets. On the other hand, this begs the question of whether citizens have the right to know which reactors are especially vulnerable. Armed with this information, they could urge the government and operators to improve protections for the more vulnerable reactors.

One year after 9/11, the International Committee on Nuclear Technology (ILK), an investigative body set up by the German states of Bavaria, Hesse and Baden-Württemberg, reached a devastating conclusion. According to the classified ILK study, "severe to catastrophic releases of radioactive materials could be expected in the event of a crash against the reactor building" in all but three nuclear power plants.

And even for the three most sophisticated power plants that stood a chance of surviving the crash of a jumbo jet, the ILK experts speculated that a crash under unfavorable conditions, such as "a direct hit on the control room," could also lead to a major accident.

Pratically Unprotected

The reactors that are most at risk include all boiling water reactors in the early 69 series. "In these reactors, the spent fuel rods are stored in a holding basin directly underneath the roof," says physicist Oda Becker, who has prepared several studies for Greenpeace on the terrorist threat.

The old reactors that were designed before the series of crashes of Starfighter jets in the 1970s are practically unprotected. Prior to the accidents, reactor walls were only required to be about half a meter (about 20 inches) thick. Biblis A and Brunsbüttel near Hamburg are two cases in point. According to Becker, "even small passenger aircraft would expose these reactors down to the core in the event of a crash."

But retrofitting the reactors is practically out of the question. There is no room at the plants for reinforced ceilings, which would require changes to the foundations, or for drainage systems to remove burning kerosene. Besides, such improvements would be unaffordable.

Desperate to come up with solutions, plant operators questioned whether a terrorist in a hijacked plane would even be able to hit the reactor buildings. In response, the German government secretly ordered an analysis to determine whether terrorists with pilot training could meet the challenge.

The analysis consisted of professional and amateur pilots in a flight simulator owned by a major German airline performing virtual plane crashes against nuclear power plants. The results were alarming. The test series produced "a rather high strike rate," confesses Rainer Baake, a state secretary at the federal Environment Ministry from 1998 to 2005.

Response to Industry Pressure

For this reason, government agencies and plant operators have installed smoke screening systems to protect against attacks with commercial aircraft. When a commercial aircraft is approaching at an unusually close range, the system is designed to quickly envelope the reactor building in a thick cloud. The artificial fog is meant to obscure the vision of potential attackers until interceptors from the German military have taken off and either shot down the hijacked airliner or forced it to fly away from the reactor.

But the concept has a key shortcoming: In February 2006, the German Constitutional Court ruled that a law proposed by the federal government that would have permitted the military to shoot down hijacked passenger jets was unconstitutional. "This effectively killed the smoke screening concept," says Baake.

When the extension of plant lifespans was being negotiated, German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen wanted to force the operators to improve protections against acts of terrorism. But in response to industry pressure, the government removed the anti-terrorism language from a list of required upgrades.

The list also includes no requirement to protect reactors against an attack with a rocket-propelled grenade. This, too, would constitute too much of a technical and financial challenge for companies. The current generation of this type of weapon is now capable of penetrating reinforced concrete three meters thick, so that not even the protective shields used in the latest German nuclear power plants are sufficient.


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