Atomic expertise

While Berlin phases out nuclear, German companies are maintaining the technology

Kernkraftwerk Krümmel
No longer fissionable - or fashionable. Source: DPA/lno/Maurizio Gambarini

The policy reversal came in 2011, just after Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster. German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that Germany’s 17 nuclear plants were being phased out with the last one to shut down in 2022.

Some plants stopped activities immediately, which put factories that make fuel assemblies in a tough spot. These structures are built out of metal fuel rods stuffed with uranium pellets and they look a bit like a whole lot of pins. They’re used as fuel for nuclear reactions, often underwater nuclear reactors, and are the heart of any reactor.

One maker of that technology is based in Lingen, Lower Saxony. That fuel rod factory was hit hard. It’s owned by Advanced Nuclear Fuels (ANF), a subsidiary of French nuclear group Framatome, formerly known as Avera. “After the decision was made to gradually shut down all German nuclear power plants, we rounded up the staff in the canteen and said that we had to re-position ourselves,” explained plant manager Andreas Hoff.

Kernkraftwerks Philippsburg – Brennelemente
Fuel assemblies: Made by Germans, sold by the French. Source: DPA/Uli Deck

The factory’s revenue primarily came from replacing fuel elements in Germany’s reactors, but by 2014, the plant had been forced to cut a fifth of its staff and was working at 40 percent capacity.

Three years later, the company was reorganized, with help from the French government to the tune of €4.5 billion. It was a complex restructuring, involving the rebranding of the bankrupt Areva, a French multinational group specializing in nuclear power. The company was rebranded as Orano in early 2018 and it sold 75 percent of its nuclear reactor operations, under the name New NP, to France’s energy giant EDF.

EDF then integrated New NP together with its own nuclear power plant activities, which range from construction, to fuel assembly and maintenance. In 2018, the operation was christened Framatome – resurrecting a name that was phased out in 2006 but stands for Franco-Américaine de Constructions Atomiques.

Nuke tech made in Germany

Germany continues to shutter its reactors, but the French wanted to ramp up production and export the sought after “Made in Germany” nuclear technology. Mr. Hoff called his factory in Lingen one of the world’s “nuclear technology experts.”

European public opinion is divided on nuclear and protesters regularly stake out some of the reactors the French they supply, for instance in Belgium. But Peter Reimann, the 58-year-old managing director at the Lingen plant, has no bad feelings about exporting German-made fuel assemblies to other countries. The rods go to countries like Finland, Sweden, Belgian, Great Britain and Switzerland. “If we don’t do it, the others will,” he said.

In Europe, Framatome’s biggest competitors are from the United States: Westinghouse and General Electric (GE). It’s a tough market for all three: In 2017, with its four sites across Germany, Framatome made around €700 million in sales. Meanwhile, majority stakeholder EDF is approaching the €33 billion mark in total debt. That partly stems from its involvement in other expensive nuclear projects, some of which have been delayed for years.

Most of the time at Lingen, the 3,500 workers modernize and maintain nuclear power stations with fuel assemblies in Europe. But they’ve also started designing and constructing manufacturing equipment for pressurized and boiling water reactors outside Europe, in Kazakhstan for example. More than half of the factory’s products are headed for nuclear reactors in foreign countries.

Too good to go

Not that it’s always a thankful task. The Lingen plant sees plenty of negative political energy, with German cities banning the shipment of nuclear fuel via its ports, for example. But there’s sufficient political will to keep it alive, reasoning that while Berlin is busy shutting down German reactors, it makes sense to maintain that expertise. Such knowledge also lends weight to Germany’s voice internationally when it comes to nuclear issues.

Just recently, officials from the German Foreign Office visited the factory to learn more about the technical details outlined in the Iran nuclear deal. So Mr. Hoff is therefore confident that Lingen will remain a key location for German nuclear energy for some time to come.

This article originally appeared in WirtschaftsWoche. Angela Hennersdorf writes about finance and economics for the magazine from Frankfurt. Christine Coester adapted it into English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: angela.hennersdorf@wiwo.de

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