Two German state environment ministries have admitted that workers failed to carry out safety checks at two nuclear power stations, but registered them as done anyway. One power station has been shut down.
German energy giants EnBW and RWE have admitted that employees did not carry out routine safety readings on equipment measuring radioactivity at their nuclear power stations, but pretended they had. Both workers were immediately barred from the premises and then dismissed.
Regional public broadcaster SWR, which broke the story, reported on Thursday that EnBW's power station in Philippsburg, Baden-Württemberg (pictured above), had been shut down by the state Environment Ministry until a mandatory inquiry was completed. RWE's nuclear power station in Biblis, Hesse, has been shut down since 2011, but radioactivity levels are still being monitored there.
In a statement released on Wednesday, EnBW said that it had informed the state Environment Ministry of the neglected readings - which occurred in December - on April 5, immediately after discovering them during another routine check. In the ensuing investigation, the energy company found that "the same employee had apparently faked seven further routine checks on similar installations. Legal options against the worker are being examined."
"This is highly unsettling and unacceptable," was Baden-Württemberg Environment Minister Franz Untersteller's immediate response. He has now shut down the station - which was already off-grid for routine maintenance - until EnBW presents changes to its procedures.
Sascha Müller-Kraenner, director of the environmental organization Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH), was not surprised that such checks are sometimes skipped. "As a student I once did an internship in a research reactor, so I saw how they work there," he told DW. "They're totally normal people; they forget things. It happens in any operation that things are left out because they don't have the time, or don't want to. The human factor is always there."
He said this case was a matter of one man either not bothering or forgetting to read one meter among many for several days in a row, not daring to tell his boss, and then reporting numbers that sounded plausible. The EnBW has since rechecked the meters, and declared there had never been any danger of radioactivity leaking. "But it could just as easily have happened with a worker in an area that is relevant to safety," said Müller-Kraenner.
The problem, Müller-Kraenner argued, was a general one - energy companies are too reliant on their fixed safety protocols. "They always forget you're dealing with people," he said. "People who might have had too much to drink the night before, or they're worried about their love life, or they're thinking about picking up their children from school or whatever. That's why things go wrong. And in a highly complex system like a nuclear power station, those factors add up."
Rewriting the rules
Following its maintenance, the Philippsburg reactor was due to go back on the power grid on May 14, and is due to be shut down for good in 2019, as part of Germany's plan to phase out its nuclear power supply altogether.
The Environment Ministry has already promised to review the measurement system at other nuclear power stations in its remit to "rule out the wrongdoing of individuals." But as Müller-Kraenner pointed out, Philippsburg is one of Germany's oldest nuclear power stations, having gone online in 1979, and automating the system would be expensive - as would sending two workers to make the readings instead of one. "As so often, it's about saving money," he said.
In the case of the Biblis nuclear power station in Hesse, where radioactivity readings on portable measuring equipment and meters had been neglected for over three months, additional controversy arose from the fact that the incident was deemed not serious enough to report publicly.
Opposition politicians have now been criticizing Hesse's Environment Minister Priska Hinz for keeping the matter secret for nearly a year after she was informed in May 2015.
"There were no negative consequences from the fact the checking was not done properly," Jan Peter Cirkel, spokesman for the energy firm RWE, told DW. "Because they were checks on systems that were not relevant to safety. They were portable measuring devices used for radioactivity protection, and they don't have an effect on running the installation."
Müller-Kraenner understood RWE's position, and why Hinz had not gone public with it. "When you make a safety protocol, you can never think of everything," he said. "But that's why you have to update such things regularly, when you notice gaps in the system. For me the answer 'it wasn't in the protocol' is not the right answer. The right answer is, 'The protocol needs to be updated immediately.'"