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Germany

Controversy Over Bavarian Research Reactor

A newly opened nuclear research reactor near Munich has sparked controversy. The Bavarian government hails it as a research milestone but critics say the reactor will use highly-enriched weapons-grade uranium as fuel.

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Highly volatile?

The €435-million research reactor FRM-II, also called "Garching II" and located in Garching near Munich, went online Wednesday following an inaugural ceremony attended by top German politicians.

The reactor is meant to aid research as a high-performance neutron source. It's expected to reach its full capacity of 20 megawatts by autumn this year.

Bavarian premier and head of the conservative opposition Christian Social Union (CSU), Edmund Stoiber, who stirred controversy recently with his suggestion that rising uncertainty about oil production and soaring prices should be offset by nuclear power, called the FRM-II a "light house of innovation" and a "high-tech job machine."

Stoiber stressed that Germany didn't have too many cutting-edge technological facilities like the FRM-II. "Excellent research needs excellent minds and excellent minds look for excellent conditions to do research," Stoiber said and added that the reactor set new standards worldwide for neutron research.

Even German Interior Minister Otto Schily said FRM-II was a guarantee for German leadership in the field of neutron research.

Umstrittener Forschungsreaktor Garching

The interiors of FRM-II are a labyrinth of high-tech gadgets and research instruments.

The Bavarian government is pinning great hopes on the FRM-II project. Among other things the research reactor is expected to open up completely new possibilities in material research, medicine, biology and other scientific fields. Scientists are also hoping to made progress in tumor research with its aid.

Critics slam use of highly-enriched uranium

Despite the research potential promised by the reactor, the project isn't free of controversy.

Critics say the FRM-II will use weapons-grade uranium as fuel, thus torpedoing international efforts to stem the spread of the bomb-making material.

Shortly before the opening ceremony in Garching on Wednesday, around 200 anti-nuclear activists demonstrated in Garching against the reactor and held up posters proclaiming "Goodbye nuclear crypt" and "no radioactive effluents in the Isar (river)."

The Green party in Bavaria has sharply criticized the use of highly enriched weapons-grade uranium as "irresponsible." Ruth Paulig, the environment expert of the Greens said, "the reactor could have been operated right from the beginning with low-grade uranium."

Built by the Technical University Munich together with engineering company Siemens, FRM-II has been a source of friction between the Bavarian government and Germany's federal Environment Ministry for years.

Safety of reactor a priority

At the heart of the row is the reactor's use of HEU or "highly enriched uranium." FRM-II uses uranium with an enrichment of up to 50 percent; theoretically the fissile material is suited to making nuclear weapons even with an enrichment level of 20 percent.

Ever since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, politicians have considered HEU to be particularly risky. They've warned of terrorists who could be interested in the weapons-grade uranium and also of attacks against which the nuclear facilities may not be sufficiently secured.

The Gemran environment ministry has thus linked its permission for FRM-II's working to certain conditions: the research reactor has to change over to non-weapons-grade low-enriched uranium by 2010 at the latest.

In addition, the ministry has also tightened regulations for furnishing evidence of the disposal of burned-out fuel rods.

Stoiber has also insisted that the security of the reactor against possible terrorist attacks had been the highest priority during its building.

Uneasiness in Garching

But the assurances aren't likely to reassure the residents of Garching.

Munich Technical University President Wolfgang Herrmann says it's not certain whether the reactor, which lies just 20 kilometers away from the Munich airport, can switch to low-grade uranium by 2010.

In addition, if the conservatives, who have made no secret they are in favor of rethinking Germany's nuclear phase-out agreement for its nuclear plants, were to come to power by the next general elections in 2006, no one doubts that FRM-II will be here to stay in its present form.

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