Two years after the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, measures are being taken to protect the German population from accidents. But their implementation could take years, and some critics are concerned.
When in March 2011 images of the Fukushima nuclear accident were shown on German TV, Chancellor Angela Merkel reacted quickly. She promised to review the safety of all German nuclear plants, and not long afterwards eight reactors in Germany were shut down. Then the government announced that Germany would be nuclear-free by 2022.
But did the German government draw all the right conclusions? Experts from the Radiation Protection Commission, which advises the government on these issues, point out that in case of a nuclear accident in Germany significantly more people could be affected than previously expected. They want more measures to be imposed to better protect the population in case of an emergency.
Among other recommendations, the commission wants to see the radius of the evacuation zone increased from 10 to 12 kilometers. Furthermore, the commission advises to government to build up national stocks of iodine tablets. If the iodine is taken in time it prevents the thyroid from taking in radioactive iodine.
Far too late, some say…
These additional precautions should have been implemented a long time ago, said Jochen Stay of the anti-nuclear campaign "Ausgestrahlt" (radiated). It has been known for more than two years that radiation spreads much further than previously thought. The precautions proposed by experts do not reach far enough, Stay claims. "They are thinking about reducing limits for resettlement from 100 to 50 millisieverts," he told DW. "That sounds good at first, but in Japan the limit is actually set at 20 millisieverts for the zone around Fukushima."
…not that urgent, others say
By now it is not clear which recommendations will be implemented. The Environment Ministry does not want to comment on details because the consultations are not finished. "At this point, when we don't even know the entire framework, it would not be appropriate to say we will do this and we won't do that," said Katharina Reiche, state secretary at the ministry.
She does not see any urgent need for action because all German nuclear power plants were carefully checked after the Fukushima accident, and international experts came to the conclusion that the country's nuclear power plants meet the highest safety standards. "Therefore I'm convinced that what we are planning now are additional measures for an event which we common sense almost rules out," Reiche said.
Old plants, more incidents
Stay vehemently denies this, insisting that the authorities are playing with fire. He believes the danger of an accident increase every year as the plants age, he said, and pointed out that most incidents occur toward the end of a plant's lifespan, as the materials and technical facilities age.
"The high-risk end phase is still ahead for the nuclear plants still running in Germany," Stay said. "Which means it's time to turn our attention to it now."
Stay believes that many players are biding their time because they want to avoid the costs of developing new emergency plans. These involve, for example, creating disaster plans for neighboring regions, including making buses available for evacuation.
"The hope is that if it takes long enough, maybe this or that plant will be ready for shutdown and they won't have to worry about executing new plans anymore," Stay said.
No national solo actions
Just exactly how long it will take for the plans to be executed remains open. Even if experts from the International Commission on Radiological Protection come to an agreement with the German Environment Ministry, responsible agencies from each German state still have to approve the recommendations.
Reiche has argued before that there should be rules that go beyond Germany - there's little purpose in regulations for Germany alone. "We have to look at all of Europe and find common standards and a common approach," Reiche said.