Nuclear Phase-Out Germany Faces Shortage of Atomic Experts

If Germany shuts down all its atomic reactors by 2021, as the government currently plans, it will still need a fresh generation of nuclear scientists. A group of experts who have released a report on heightened nuclear risks in Germany warns against complacency.


Some German scientists are worried that the country will not have enough experts to safely phase-out nuclear power. Here, a radioactive waste treatment facility in France.
AP

Some German scientists are worried that the country will not have enough experts to safely phase-out nuclear power. Here, a radioactive waste treatment facility in France.

Agreeing to phase out nuclear power is one thing. But having the technical wherewithal to carry it out, warns a group of German researchers, is quite another.

The Scientific Security Initiative, a consortium of 10 nuclear power experts, has released a report arguing that Germany hasn't trained enough young nuclear scientists to finish the job, and that the "security culture" in its 17 remaining nuclear power plants has deteriorated.

The report details risks associated with Germany's nuclear reactors, the last of which is scheduled to go offline in 2021. The Scientific Security Initiative doesn't question the phase-out. But its members do worry that domestic expertise to shut down the last of the country's reactors in 13 years' time will be lacking.

They also warn that the phase-out plan has made Germans less safe, not more, because of unexpected risks. "The motivation of workers in the 17 plants scheduled for shutdown is suffering" because of the deadline, a spokesman for the group, Dr. Sylvius Hartwig, told the newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau on Wednesday. "The situation is dramatic."

"We need to interest young engineers, physicists and technicians in the nuclear sector," said another academic, Michael Sailer, to Frankfurter Rundschau. The problem, he said, is that shutting down a reactor -- and above all disposing and tending the radioactive waste for years afterward -- requires nuclear expertise.

Sailer is not a member of the initiative, but he is a nuclear safety expert and deputy director of the Institute for Applied Ecology, a group critical of nuclear power. But the experts at the Scientific Security Initiative agreed with him: "The situation (in universities) in Germany is depressingly bad compared with other countries," reads their official statement. "Soapbox speeches by politicians are no replacement for security policy."

Historic Anti-Nuclear Law

Longstanding popular opposition to nuclear power in Germany culminated in a historic agreement in 2000 to phase out all remaining German nuclear reactors by the beginning of the 2020s. The law -- passed by former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrats in a governing coalition with the Greens -- set a 32-year lifespan on all remaining German nuclear plants. The last plant is scheduled to shut down in 2021.

After Angela Merkel's election in 2005, her coalition agreement with the Social Democrats stipulated that the 2000 law was non-negotiable during her term. But recent energy price hikes, worries about dependence on Russian gas and oil, and concerns about global warming have revived talk about changing the law.

The Scientific Security Initiative also warned German politicians not to make themselves irrelevant in international groups dealing with nuclear power, since Germany is surrounded by some 150 reactors in Western and Eastern Europe. Memories of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster are strong in Germany, and the experts say the risk of reactor accidents after 2021 will be entirely in the hands of other nations.

"Not everyone who takes a different direction in nuclear policy is ignorant and dumb, as some German politicians insinuate," reads the initiative's sharply-worded statement.

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