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GERMANY: FIRE DID AFFECT NUCLEAR REACTOR; PHASEOUT PLANS TO STAY

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#658
13/07/2007
Article

(June 21, 2007) After a fire at the Kruemmel nuclear power plant late June, energy company Vattenfall had been quick to reassure the public that the reactor was not affected. But later, the news has been revealed that the fire did in fact have an effect on the reactor. The news came at a time the German government was debating the future of nuclear power.

(658.5816) WISE Amsterdam - Contrary to previous reports, a fire at the Kruemmel nuclear power plant in Germany on June 28, did in fact affect the reactor. First officials said that the fire only affected a transformer in the plant but not the reactor itself and that there was no risk of a radioactivity leak. No one was injured in the fire which started when coolant in a large electric power transformer substation ignited due to a short circuit.

However experts who are investigating the cause of the fire have discovered that the reactor was in fact affected. In a statement released on July 3 by the Health Ministry in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, which is responsible for nuclear safety, it reported that the authorities had checked "several incidents caused by the shutdown of the reactor."

The experts had found that one of the pumps which supply water to the reactor had shut down unexpectedly, and two safety and relief valves had opened accidentally. The result was that the water level and the pressure in the reactor fell quickly. However the drop in water level and pressure could be "balanced out by switching on a reserve supply system," the ministry said, adding: "Despite these incidents, the safety of the facilities was guaranteed."

Immediately after the fire, Vattenfall, the utility company which operates the nuclear plant, had claimed that the reactor was not affected by the fire. Now politicians are asking why the seriousness of the problem wasn't made public earlier.

Experts have been studying the scene of the fire in Kruemmel. They were only able to get into the interior of the transformer hall on July 2, where they found the transformer has been so severely damaged that it cannot be repaired and will have to be replaced. The cable which connects the power station and the transformer may also have to be replaced, Vattenfall said.

The reactor at Kruemmel came into operation in 1983 and is one of the oldest types of reactors still working in Germany.

A second nuclear power plant at nearby Brunsbuettel was shut down only a few hours before the Kruemmel fire after a short-circuit. There is speculation that the problem at Brunsbuettel may have caused the fire at Kruemmel due to a change in voltage in the network after Brunsbuettel was shut down.

The German branch of environmental group, Friends of the Earth, BUND, demanded "full transparency in the investigation of the causes of the fire and possible dangers" from the plant's operator, European energy group, Vattenfall. BUND demanded the immediate closure of both plants.

Greenpeace also accused Vattenfall and the local government in Kiel of withholding important information on the consequences of the incident. According to the environmental organization, this was an obvious attempt to avoid conflict at Germany's third annual energy summit in Berlin which was focusing on exploring ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and curb global warming.

At that meeting, German chancellor Angela Merkel called the battle against climate change the "greatest challenge of the 21st century" - and says there will be no change to the government's plan to phase out nuclear power. Merkel unveiled plans to cut carbon emissions by up to 40% by 2020. She disappointed the (nuclear) industry heads at a Berlin summit by reiterating that the government does not expect to agree any change to its nuclear energy policy before 2009, when the current legislative period ends.

Germany's nuclear power plants generate about 26% of its electricity and are due to close by 2021 under an agreement reached by the previous administration and ratified by Merkel's coalition government. Utility chiefs want to operate nuclear plants for longer, and industrial leaders had hoped the debate about the nuclear phase-out could be reopened as a result of the Berlin meeting. Many members of Merkel's Conservative party would also like to see the phase-out dropped, but the plan remains strongly supported by the Social Democrats, who form half of the coalition government.

Merkel said the government wants to achieve the carbon cuts by improving energy efficiency by 3% per year, an amount many energy industry experts have called unrealistic. The July 3 discussions are to form the basis of a national energy plan, with the German government to produce a package of legislative measures. Decisions are expected at a cabinet meeting in August.

Klaus Toepfer, a leading conservative (and Party Member of Merkel) and former German environment minister, who until last year headed the United Nations Environment Program, was quoted in the Sunday Telegraph saying: "We need a future without nuclear power and we must do everything to develop renewable energy sources and increase energy efficiency to achieve this."

Sources: Spiegel Online, 4 July 2007 / Deutsche Welle, 5 July 2007 / WNN, 3 July 2007 / Sunday Telegraph, 8 July 2007
Contact: Greenpeace Germany, Sigrid Totz, Grosse Elbstrasse 39, 22767 Hamburg, Germany.
Tel: +49 40 30618-0
Mail: sigrid-totz@greenepace.de