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German environment minister's dangerous schizophrenia on nuclear fuel exports

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Diet Simon

The German environment minister says delivery of German nuclear fuel to damage-prone power stations in neighboring Belgium is legal and she can't stop it, although she would if she could. Barbara Hendricks, a centre-left Social Democrat in a coalition government headed by centre-right Chancellor Angela Merkel, cites a legal opinion she commissioned from administrative law professor Wolfgang Ewer.

Germany supplies fuel to reactors at Tihange, near the German‒Belgian border, and Doel, 15 km north of the very busy port of Antwerp, whose metropolitan area houses around 1.2 million people.

The Tihange reactor pressure vessel has thousands of cracks and both power stations have had to be repeatedly switched off because of faults. (A reactor pressure vessel contains the nuclear reactor coolant, core shroud, and the reactor core.)

Seven reactors at the two locations delivered more than 37% of Belgium's electricity production in 2015, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Tihange is 65 km across the border from the German city of Aachen, where 240,000 people live. Germany, Belgium and The Netherlands abut in a nearby corner.

Wolfgang Ewer states in his appraisal "that it does not have to be ensured that the exported nuclear fuels are used according to the stipulations of the German Atomic Energy Act at the destination of the export. This requirement applies only to imports" to Germany.

The Greens in the federal parliament, citing a legal opinion they commissioned from energy attorney Cornelia Ziehm, argue that the Act empowers the government to stop such exports if German interests are harmed.

The law stipulates that exportation must be licensed if nothing is known that gives rise to concerns about the reliability of the exporter, and it is assured that the nuclear fuels to be exported are not used in any way that breaches Germany's international obligations in the field of nuclear energy, or endangers its internal or external security.1

Importation must be licensed if nothing is known that gives rise to concern about the reliability of the importer, and it is assured that the nuclear fuels to be imported are used under observance of the provisions of this law, the ordinances based on it and Germany's international obligations in the field of nuclear energy.

Citing the export rules, The Greens had demanded in a letter to Hendricks that she stop deliveries to Tihange immediately. "Almost monthly malfunctions and thousands of cracks in the reactor pressure vessel represent a danger to Germany," the Greens' parliamentary floorleader, Oliver Krischer, and their nuclear policy spokesperson Sylvia Kotting Uhl warned.

If radioactivity were to leak out, parts of the population would be hit by a worst possible accident, they said. "If Tihange 2 is not a danger to German safety, what is?" said Uhl.

The Greens failed with a parliamentary move to have fuel deliveries stopped. The co-governing Christian Democrats and Social Democrats voted them down.

Hendricks says she shares the safety concerns about the Belgian reactors and is now looking into the possibility of stopping uranium enrichment and fuel element production in Germany. But even if that were possible, it wouldn't stop operation of the Belgian power stations, which could obtain fuel elsewhere on the world market. Moreover, the ministry points out, a stop wouldn't be doable short-term.

A leading regional newspaper, Cologne's Stadtanzeiger, commented that Tihange is exemplary of the cross-border danger of nuclear power. If there was a serious incident in Tihange with a southwest wind blowing, Aachen would be hit worst. The Stadtanzeiger commentator quoted from a brochure published by local authorities giving tips for a serious nuclear malfunction "that would make your hair stand on end".

But at the end of the day, he wrote, Tihange also stands for the contrariness of politics and for minister Hendricks, who rates the reactor as a danger to German citizens but does not try to prevent its operation by stopping the delivery of German fuel rods. "No wonder thousands want to form a human chain and the local papers are getting masses of furious readers' letters," he wrote.

"If there were a serious reactor malfunction our region would have to cope with considerable effects," the crisis brochure states. No immediate damage would be expected, but in the long term, damage would include increased cancer incidence and deformities among newborns.

People should store enough food for 14 days and 28 litres of water per person. Windows should be sealed and one shouldn't leave the house. In case one had to, then only with a respiratory mask of the protective category FFP3. (A manufacturer of it states that it provides "protection from poisonous and deleterious kinds of dust, smoke, and aerosols. Oncogenic and radioactive substances or pathogens such as viruses, bacteria and fungal spores are filtered by this protective class of respirator masks.2)

"It's clear that someone publishing such advice must be expecting the worst," the Stadtanzeiger newspaper continued. "Given that, the stance of the German environment minister is puzzling. Barbara Hendricks hails from North-Rhine Westphalia [the state in which Aachen lies], she knows Tihange. For the resolute Social Democrat criticising the breakdown-reactor is a kind of point of honour. She has clearly expressed her concerns, even urging Brussels to switch off Reactor No 2."

The Federal Office for Nuclear Disposal Safety is answerable to Hendricks and licensed the direct delivery of German fuel rods. The last ones arrived on 4 March 2017.3

Local councillors in the border region feel left in the lurch by the federal government. "We represent almost 15 million people," says one of them. The closer German politicians and ordinary people are to the reactors, the greater the resistance and criticism and the less party differences matter. Worries and fear rule.

But the environment ministry in Berlin, 400 km away, cites the valid operating licence and the related contractual duty to deliver fuel rods. That might do for a law course at university, suggests the Stadtanzeiger commentator, on the theme of where does a political stance end and a politician's duty to service state agreements begin. "But it does nothing for credibility. It seems you've got to be a politician to understand the minister in her inconsistency, which borders on schizophrenia. How can she approve the delivery of fuel rods if in her own words that endangers German citizens?"

To stop delivery might have entailed contractual penalties and diplomatic strife, the commentary continued, but German politics would have stayed credible.