ATOMIC numbers

Nuclear Risks That Don’t Go Away

Nuclear power wrap up
Taking out the trash.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Properly storing radioactive rods and waste will take a long time – possibly into the next century – at a much greater cost than has been suggested.

  • Facts


    • Following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, Germany decided to abandon nuclear power by 2022.
    • Germany still has nine nuclear power plants in operation. Some estimate it could cost €50 billion to €70 billion to close them.
    • The last nuclear power plant in Germany is scheduled to shut down seven years from now.
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Silence hangs over Block 6 of the Greifswald nuclear power plant, about 250 kilometers north of Berlin. Pipes, pressure gauges, valves, regulators, pumps and steam generators – all meant to produce electricity one day – have never functioned and hardly been touched.

The pressurized water reactor, of Russian design in the former East Germany, was nearly complete when the Wall fell in 1989. Block 6 was never activated, unlike Blocks 1 to 4, and Block 5, which was in trial operation.

In 1990, the entire plant near the Baltic Sea beach town of Lubmin was shuttered.

Starting in 1995, the power plant was dismantled with difficult and detailed work – all except Block 6. Up to now, it is the largest German nuclear plant closure – and it shows what’s ahead for the industry when the last nuclear power plant in Germany shuts in 2022.

The closures come in the wake of Germany’s Energiewende, or energy transition, which sees a transition to renewable power sources instead of generating power through traditional means such as nuclear and coal.

“We are talking about a problem that will still occupy us in the 22nd century.”

Christian von Hirschhausen, research director, DIW

The transition, set following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, left companies struggling to reorient themselves and their business models. Some, such as E.ON, have split their business into two, one part focused on renewables and the other one wrapping up traditional power generation.

This has led to a dispute between the German government and providers as to who is to bear the cost of the plant closures and disposal of associated waste.

“The ideological debates surrounding nuclear energy have ended,” said Hubertus Bardt, managing director of the Institute for the German Economy (IW) in Cologne. “In the next decades, it is about cleaning up.”

That will be difficult and can’t be rushed into, according to the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW).

First, the highly radioactive rods must be securely embedded in repositories that will last for thousands of years. Second, not enough money has been earmarked for dismantling and disposing of nuclear waste from plant operators.

So far, companies in Germany including RWE, E.ON, Vattenfall and others have created total provisions of €38 billion for the dismantling operations. Some estimates, however, run from €50 billion to €70 billion. In Greifswald, for example, costs are estimated to be €4.2 billion, financed by the federal government.

No one can say how costly the dismantling of nuclear power plants will really be, according to Mr. Bardt of the Institute for the German Economy.

From a technical standpoint, demolition is not the biggest problem.

“The experiences up to now show that dismantling of an atomic power plant, including post-operations, is manageable in about 15 years” said Michael Kruse, a partner at the Arthur D. Little consulting firm.

Properly storing radioactive rods and nuclear waste takes a lot longer.

“We are talking about a problem that will still occupy us in the 22nd century,” said Christian von Hirschhausen, research director at DIW.

In Germany, there are still nine nuclear plants in operation.

In the face of financial risks, the economic research institute said provisions by nuclear energy firms should be transferred quickly into a public legal fund. This debate is not new, but it also barely moves forward.

Take the search for final storage: In March, Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel announced stress tests to ensure provisions for dismantling plants and storing nuclear waste are adequate. But the tests have still not been scheduled.

The Green party parliamentary delegation asked about the status of the tests last week. Uwe Beckmeyer, Mr. Gabriel’s parliamentary state secretary, answered that an independent auditor would soon be commissioned.

That wasn’t good enough for the Greens. “It is more and more apparent that the system of nuclear provisions up to now are not sustainable,” said the nuclear policy speaker Sylvia Kotting-Uhl.

She said a public legal fund, with money from nuclear power operators, was overdue.

Some are not sure that this is a viable solution. “The risk for the state remains that the provisions are no longer recoverable, or that (nuclear operators) will go bankrupt,” said Mr. Bardt. A public legal fund might work, he said, if operators were released from liability for further depreciations and cost increases; in exchange, they would forgo lawsuits for damages, he explained.

In Germany, nine nuclear plants are still operational. The Grafenrheinfeld plant will be shut down this year. In 2022, Neckarwestheim 2, Isar 2 and Emsland will be the last three to be turned off.

Workers will remain busy at the Greifswald plant near Lubmin, dismantling remains of the largest nuclear station in the former East Germany. The radioactive waste will be placed in interim storage, also in Lubmin. All parts will be examined for contamination, then disassembled and cleaned.

This involves machine-operated band saws cutting through steel, as men in protective suits and respirator masks clean contaminated surfaces with high-pressure cleaners.

Later the material is placed in boxes in a surface surveillance monitoring system, in order to recycle as much as possible.

“We manage to get most of it clean,” said one of those involved. “In the end, less than 1 percent of the plant will remain as radioactive waste. That shows the whole effort is worth it.”


Silke Kersting writes about environmental policy, construction and consumer affairs for Handelsblatt. To contact the author:

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