Political Meltdown German Mishaps Put Nuclear Power under Scrutiny

The company at first said it was just a small fire. But the blaze at Vattenfall's Krümmel reactor has since become a political wildfire. Now, Germany's pro-nuclear energy politicians have gone into hiding.

The event featured finger sandwiches with liverwurst and salami, a Dixieland band and Chancellor Angela Merkel telling marginally funny jokes, like the one about her not being too concerned about the southern state of Baden-Württemberg's future because its residents are capable of doing just about anything, except, of course, speak German properly. When the state's environment ministry celebrated its 20th anniversary last Wednesday in Ludwigsburg, the mood was so relaxed that the governor of Baden-Württemberg, Günther Oettinger, decided to take advantage of his guests' high spirits to deliver an important message.

According to Oettinger, who belongs to Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats, nuclear energy should be part of Germany's energy mix in the future as a climate-friendly energy source. The reactors, he said, should be kept in operation longer than current plans call for -- and he is certain that the policy of shutting down Germany's nuclear power plants by 2021, passed under former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder during his coalition government with the Greens, will eventually be reversed.

It was an important issue for Oettinger, whose state derives more than half of its electricity from nuclear power plants -- a rate almost twice as high as in Germany as a whole. But his audience was not convinced. Indeed, Oettinger's comments received no applause, nor even a few nods of approval. The Baden-Württemberg governor, it seemed, was giving his speech in the wrong place and at the wrong time.

'Occasional Explosion or Fire'

Nuclear power has received a tremendous boost since climate change has made Germans suddenly fearful about the future. Regional politicians like Oettinger, Roland Koch of Hesse and Edmund Stoiber of Bavaria, as well as CDU General Secretary Ronald Pofalla, have become increasingly vocal proponents of extending the shelf life of nuclear power plants. But during the last two weeks or so, amid thick clouds of smoke enveloping a nuclear power plant in Krümmel and reports of technical failures, human error and corporate incompetence, opponents of nuclear power see their arguments gaining credence once again. Suddenly the Social Democrats, especially Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel, see themselves justified in taking the position that nuclear energy is a "risky technology." "German nuclear power plants are the safest worldwide," Gabriel said acerbically last week, "aside from the occasional explosion or fire."

Not only has Gabriel recognized an opportunity to shift public opinion away from nuclear power, he is also clearly aware of the issue's symbolic importance. By defending the movement to phase out the technology in Germany, Gabriel has assumed the role of the protector of the Schröder government's legacy. Of course, the issue also revolves around emotions, history and the right to interpret history. Was the battle against nuclear power wrong? Was the decision to phase out the technology a historical mistake, as the conservatives claim? Was it in fact an environmental mistake? Or was the decision to abandon the dangerous technology the right one, because it is in fact so difficult to control, as the Greens and Social Democrats argue?

Since the two most recent incidents-- at the reactors in Krümmel and Brunsbüttel -- became public at the beginning of the month, Gabriel has positioned himself as a leading critic of Vattenfall, the company that operates the two stricken reactors. And he has been demanding answers.

Gabriel's posturing is the type that even a few short weeks ago would have triggered automatic retorts from conservatives. But last week there was hardly a whimper from even the staunchest proponents of nuclear power. Economics Minister Michael Glos (CDU) told a small group: "One hardly even dares take a position anymore." Dietrich Austermann (CDU), the minister of economics for the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, an advocate of extending plant operating licenses, admitted that the incident at Krümmel has weighed heavily on the debate.

Proved to Be a Lie

The reason for the change in thinking is clear. Whereas most of the some 130 reactor incidents reported annually in Germany are minor and go unnoticed, smoke pouring out of a transformer as happened in Krümmel tends to attract attention. It took the fire department hours to extinguish the blaze. Even worse, the plant operator's claim that a fire in the transformer had no effect on the reactor itself proved to be a lie.

In short, the incident has made it clear that nuclear energy is by no means the modern, well-organized high-tech sector portrayed until recently by politicians and industry advocates. Indeed, the frequency of problems occurring at Germany's aging reactors is on the rise. Just as old cars will eventually succumb to rust, the country's nuclear power plants, built in the 1970s and 80s, are undergoing a natural aging process.

The problems are complicated by maintenance and supervision issues among aging and unmotivated employees. A dangerously lackadaisical attitude has taken hold that is making Germany's nuclear power plants increasingly unsafe. Most incidents to date have proven to be relatively minor, and yet each new incident becomes yet another link in a chain of problems with the potential to end in a serious accident.

As if the nuclear industry weren't facing enough problems with the recent incidents, representatives of the district attorney's office in the northern city of Lübeck took matters into their own hands last Friday when they appeared at Krümmel plant to get a clear answer on who exactly is responsible for operations at the plant. Vattenfall, the plant's owner, had refused to promptly provide the district attorney with the relevant information. Uwe Döring, the justice minister in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, said that he was "speechless" over Vattenfall's response, "especially coming from a company fighting to preserve its credibility."

Ignited Several Tons of Transformer Oil

With Vattenfall coming under growing pressure, company executives last week were even considering a plan to transfer the operating licenses for its two nuclear reactors to E.on, which is both a partner and a competitor. The executives reason that because the Düsseldorf-based energy giant, which owns 50 percent of the Krümmel reactor and 33 percent of the Brunsbüttel plant, has a better reputation when it comes to operating nuclear reactors, an E.on takeover would help prevent the plants from being shut down. The two companies have already entered into serious talks over the plan, but E.on plans to wait until the incidents at Krümmel have been fully investigated before reaching a decision.

According to the initial report issued by Vattenfall Europe, Germany's third-largest energy utility, a phenomenon known as arcing caused a fire at 3:02 p.m. on June 29. The fire ignited several tons of transformer oil, which normally circles around the voltage transformer in sealed metal pipes, cooling the transformer. According to a statement issued the same day by the head of the nuclear division of Vattenfall's German subsidiary, Bruno Thomauske, the problem was under control and the safety of the local population was not endangered "at any time."

Blatant Efforts to Downplay Major Problems

But the public learned more and more about further deficiencies at the plant in the ensuing days. "One has the feeling," Minister of the Environment Gabriel said derisively, "that someone from Greenpeace is doing their PR."

Vattenfall has now come under increased scrutiny. "We are taking a careful look at what's happening in Germany," says Peter Rickwood, a spokesman of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). After an incident at the Forsmark nuclear power plant in Sweden last year, in which two backup generators broke down and the reactor had to be operated "flying blind" for 20 minutes, Vattenfall submitted a report to the IAEA that clearly glossed over the seriousness of the situation. The same pattern seems to have emerged in the Krümmel incident, as well as at the Brunsbüttel plant, where the reactor was temporarily shut down because of a "network problem." In both cases Vattenfall's report assigns the lowest problem classification -- "N" for normal -- to the incidents.

This blatant effort to downplay problems at the reactors has even led to ill will against Vattenfall management among employees. "Our people working in the nuclear power plant are not permitted to say anything, but they are furious," says Uwe Martens, the managing director of the Hamburg branch of the services union Ver.di. Indeed, Thomauske chose to blame others at the lower end of the hierarchy for the Krümmel incident. According to Thomauske, a "misunderstanding" between the reactor manager and the shift manager led to the inadvertent opening of valves. Another unanswered question is why up to 25 people were congregated in the reactor's operating room at the time of the accident.

Over the weekend, Vattenfall management finally began taking responsibility for the management meltdown. And on Monday, Thomauske was fired along with company spokesman Johannes Altmeppen. The decision was made at the headquarters of Vattenfall's German subsidiary in Berlin in conjunction with the mothership back in Stockholm.

Acting Irresponsibly

But the move might have come too late. Gitta Trauernicht, the Schleswig-Holstein minister for social affairs, has clearly distanced herself from Vattenfall. "What happened here is a first in the history of the nuclear industry," said Trauernicht, whose agency is investigating Vattenfall and the reliability of its operations. Trauernicht has said she would not hesitate to withdraw Vattenfall's license to operate nuclear power plants if it became clear that the company was acting at all irresponsibly.

Even Vattenfall's competitors say that they are concerned about the way the Krümmel incident was handled. Officially the utilities have complained to government officials in Berlin that the mishaps could discredit the entire nuclear industry. But unofficially they have reproached Vattenfall for serious deficiencies in its ability to manage a crisis like the one that happened at Krümmel.

Public relations officials in the nuclear industry traditionally meet once a year to discuss strategy. In the mid-1990s, this group agreed on a plan to deal with crisis situations. It called for being upfront with the public and responding clearly and quickly, mainly to prevent rumors from developing, but also to demonstrate the industry's proactive approach to such problems. Apparently only a few German companies -- and Vattenfall -- have failed to implement the plan. When the Krümmel incident occurred, Vattenfall reacted as it would have in the 1980s: provide as little information as possible, admit only what can no longer be denied and downplay the facts.

Just why the company chose cover-up over clearing up is unclear. Vattenfall cannot exactly claim that its PR policies are based on a lack of experience. Safety issues have become an all-too-common occurrence in plants run by the company. An internal report by Forsmark, a Swedish power plant operator and subsidiary of Vattenfall, reveals why this is the case. According to the report, which is unsparing in its criticism of Vattenfall, there has been a "decline in the safety culture" at the company. Vattenfall's "focus on increasing production" and its "too rapid renovation of plants" have led to many "unacceptable quality defects." In addition, when Forsmark alcohol-tested 25 people who were involved in its audit at the plant, which is located about 200 kilometers north of Stockholm, three had to be sent home.

Problems the Rule Rather than the Exception

Some of these problems are attributable to constant repairs at the plants, repairs that are also long overdue at German nuclear power plants. In a 55-page report, Germany's Reactor Safety Commission (RSC), which advises Gabriel's environment ministry, writes about "containing the aging processes" and that some age-related problems are only being discovered by chance. According to the RSC, these problems are difficult to correct, partly because "suppliers and manufacturers are no longer in business."

The 31-year-old Neckarwestheim I reactor -- along with the Biblis A reactor, Germany's oldest reactor still in operation -- is one of a group of nuclear dinosaurs where problems have become the rule rather than the exception. When a fire broke out in a major incident in October 2005, the reactor had to be shut down manually. The state environment ministry in Stuttgart had imposed a €25,000 fine on the plant's operator shortly before the incident. It had taken the operator, EnBW, about 20 days to discover a leak of radioactively contaminated water into the Neckar River, and another nine days to report the problem.

For years the Philippsburg 2 nuclear power plant, which went online in 1984, was repeatedly started up again after maintenance work and shutdowns without the emergency cooling system being correctly filled. Nevertheless, a court in the state of Baden-Württemberg, where Philippsburg is located, turned down a request by the state government for tightened safety regulations as being "too vague."

Problems at the Biblis A power plant reveal how inadequate work has been on aging reactors. The plant's operator, utility giant RWE, insists that it has invested about €1.2 billion in refurbishing the plant's A and B units in the past eight years. Nevertheless, Biblis A retains the dubious reputation of being a "junkyard reactor." For decades inspectors have failed to notice serious maintenance deficiencies. It wasn't until 2003 that an inspection engineer hit upon the idea of measuring the opening size of one of the reactor's backup cooling systems. As a result of the test, the reactor was shut down for eight months and authorities demanded a complete overhaul of the approval process.

But even when it came to the many improvements to the reactor, both the operator and supervisory authorities revealed a lack of the necessary attention to detail. During a walk-through last September, inspectors discovered small concrete fragments on the floor of the reactor building. A subsequent inspection revealed that more than half of about 15,000 heavy dowels installed in 2001 to safeguard central plant components in both Biblis reactors against earthquakes had in fact been installed incorrectly and were not as strong as required.

In addition, the Biblis reactors are virtually unprotected against terrorist attacks from the air, even though they are located only a few flight minutes from Germany's busiest airport in Frankfurt. The concrete containment shell of reactor A is less than 60 centimeters thick, a problem also encountered at two other aging plants, Brunsbüttel and Philippsburg 1.

Aging, Unmotivated Workforce

Experts believe that the risks posed by plant personnel even outweigh those of an airborne terrorist attack. Employees who have spent years staring at the plants' security monitors without experiencing a major incident are bound to acquire a false sense of security, which ultimately leads to a more lax approach to safety precautions. In 1987 this phenomenon resulted, at the Biblis A nuclear power plant, in what until then was the most serious incident in the history of German nuclear power. For hours the team in the control booth ignored a warning light indicating an open valve in the cooling cycle.

"Working in a nuclear power plant is incredibly boring, but you still have to be completely on the ball," says Michael Sailer of the Darmstadt-based RSC. "Sloppiness is dangerous." Another factor complicating the problem is the aging of workers at nuclear power plants. Operators are having trouble recruiting new employees. Nuclear power plants are "simply no longer sexy," says Jef Vanwildemeersch, a former Belgian government official and now a nuclear industry lobbyist. In the mid-1980s there were about 300 students learning the nuclear power business in Germany. By 2006 that number had plunged to only about 20, half of them coming from abroad.

Insiders also report a lack of motivation among employees. The work ethic has suffered as a result of cost-cutting measures, job cuts and outsourcing. According to Uwe Möller, a lecturer at the Essen Power Plant School, "the mood is somber at a few power plants because many are focused on the time they have left until retirement." Because of personnel shortfalls, some companies are bringing early retirees and pensioners back to work to ensure continued operation. Utilities E.on and RWE say they are already spending "millions" to train new employees internally.

Nevertheless, internal criticism of the industry and its current state remains a taboo. Eberhard Grauf, the former director of the Neckarwestheim II nuclear power plant, was abruptly dismissed in July 2004. Grauf, a professional with an international reputation, had previously complained about "unacceptable work loads" at the plant operated by energy giant EnBW.

Overloading the Transformer

Industry insiders complain that for some time power plant operators have been attempting to squeeze as much profit as possible out of their old, and for the most part depreciated, reactors. In recent years, for example, the owners of the Krümmel nuclear power plant have invested about €50 million in technical improvements to increase the efficiency of the plant's turbines, a move that has brought a 7 percent improvement in net output. But these alleged improvements have also increased stress on secondary systems such as the plant's transformer, systems that were apparently not retrofitted. In fact, this may have been the cause of the Krümmel fire. According to Günther Pikos, a nuclear expert from the western German city of Düren, "the transformer was apparently already damaged by a string of earlier incidents." Pikos believes that this, combined with the increase in turbine output, was what ended up overloading the transformer.

E.on has also asked the Bavarian state government for its approval of a similar efficiency upgrade at its Gundremmingen nuclear power plant. Raimund Kamm of the Forum for a Responsible Energy Policy is concerned about the upgrade: "It's the same situation as when you're upping a car's performance. The engine becomes more powerful, while the brakes stay the same."

Minister of the Environment Gabriel is familiar with these risks. But he is equally alarmed over scenarios that extend into the political arena. He and fellow members of his party are becoming increasingly concerned that the operators of aging nuclear power plants will take advantage of the current mood to attempt to push through a program that could only be to their benefit. By agreeing to shut down trouble-prone reactors prematurely and transfer their operating licenses to newer reactors, companies could extend the operating life of the newer reactors by five to 10 years.

This sort of maneuver would put pressure on politicians, especially Social Democrats. One of them, Gabriel, will soon have a chance to demonstrate how strong his support is for unconditionally abandoning nuclear power. This week he is scheduled to meet with Klaus Rauscher, the head of Vattenfall Europe.

By Matthias Bartsch, Frank Dohmen, Simone Kaiser, Sebastian Knauer, Udo Ludwig, Cordula Meyer, and Roland Nelles

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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