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Alarm at discovery of nuclear exports

Dagmar Breitenbach
March 28, 2017

With a myriad of hairline cracks in the reactor pressure vessels, Germany is convinced that Belgium's Tihange 2 nuclear reactor is a huge security risk. Now, however, it appears Germany is helping secure its operation.

Tihange nuclear plant
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Berg

"It's totally incomprehensible, a real scandal," says Matthias Eickhoff. The spokesman for "Aktionsbündnis Münsterland gegen Atomanlagen," a western German anti-nuclear alliance, told DW on Tuesday that he and many other activists are stunned by revelations Germany's Environment Ministry gave the green light months ago for exports of nuclear fuel elements to highly controversial nuclear reactors in neighboring Belgium.

He says documents made available online by the German Federal Office for Nuclear Waste Management (BfE) show the production company in the northern German town of Lingen has been providing Belgium's Doel 3 reactor with nuclear fuel elements since June 2016, while Tihange 2 is a new contract.

Germany 'enabling' reactors

Granting such export licenses contradicts everything Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks said over the past year, Eickhoff argues - when she was openly critical of the two controversial Belgian reactors.

Hendricks even officially requested the Belgian government take offline both Tihange 2 and Doel 3, the latter near Antwerp, for further safety checks. In 2012, they were offline after defects in the reactor pressure were detected.

"By signing off on the export of nuclear fuel elements, Germany is enabling the reactors to continue to operate," Eickhoff says.

Infografik Kernkraftwerk Belgien EN Nuclear plants Doel 2 and Tihange 2 Map Karte

The Environment Ministry (BMUB) responded to a DW interview request by email, explaining that laws often don't "allow for everything one deems preferable and right in politics." Along the lines of Germany's Atomic Energy Act, the BMUB sees no grounds for a ban of the export of nuclear fuel elements, in particular as "the security situation of a foreign nuclear power plant" isn't part of the equation.   

According to the BMUB, such exports can only be prohibited if they "violate international obligations or if they endanger Germany's external and domestic security."

Anti-nuclear activists and opposition politicians on Tuesday demanded stopping the shipments - arguing, as Greens lawmaker Sylvia Kotting-Uhl put it: "If Tihange 2 isn't a threat to Germany's safety, what is?"

Nuclear hazards don't stop at borders

People in the city of Aachen, about 65 kilometers (40 miles) from the Tihange complex, have certainly long been deeply worried. A study has shown that, in the event of a nuclear accident at the Tihange plant, Aachen and the surrounding region could be severely irradiated.

The Belgian government doesn't see eye-to-eye with Germany on the nuclear reactor issue, but in December 2016, Hendricks and Belgium's Interior Minister Jan Jambon signed an agreement to cooperate on nuclear safety.

Belgium depends on its seven nuclear reactors. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), more than 37 percent of the country's power was supplied by nuclear energy in 2015.

In Germany, nuclear energy has been a hot topic ever since the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. The German government decided to gradually take all German nuclear power plants off the grid.