Decommissioned German nuclear power plants will be dismantled over the long term. Though no incidents have occurred in Germany, some citizen initiatives say legal safety measures are too lax.
Vattenfall, the company that runs the Brunsbüttel nuclear plant, recently applied to the Environment Ministry in the state of Schleswig Holstein for a permit to tear down the facility. The whole unit is supposed to be completely dismantled, rather than sealed over with a concrete sarcophagus in the style of the Chernobyl reactor.
Since the German government decided to phase out nuclear power last year, the country has been gathering some experience dismantling nuclear power plants: the Niederaichbach facility in Bavaria has been fully dismantled, while Greifswald in eastern Germany is among the biggest disassembly projects worldwide. First shut down in 1990, demolition work at Greifswald is only now ending, 22 years later. About 10,000 workers were busy dismantling the radioactive components.
As of 2014, the Würgassen nuclear energy plant in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia was supposed to be taken care of, while a year after that, Eon has said the Stade facility will follow. Within 10 years, work dismantling the Obrigheim nuclear power plant in Baden-Wuerttemberg should also be finished.
Dismantling turns into a routine
Dismantling a nuclear power facility is a routine process, according to Ralf Güldner, president of the German Atomic Forum, which represents the interests of the nuclear power industry.
"The technical process of taking down a nuclear power plant is well-developed and safe," Güldner told DW, adding that non-nuclear parts of the facility are removed first, followed by the slightly contaminated sections of the control area while the fuel rods and supply system are the last parts of the plant to be removed.
Each step of the dismantling process requires approvals and is supervised by technical monitoring associations and the nuclear power regulatory authorities. German laws also call for constant safety monitoring of air and water systems during all disassembly and removal work. Plants can require between three and five years of operation off the grid to ensure fuel rods have, in fact, cooled. The fuel rods account for about 99 percent of a nuclear facility's radioactivity.
Reusing nuclear plants' construction material
Many residents, however, remain skeptical and have said they do not trust safety measures. Local citizens' initiatives often accompany the dismantling work. They examine files and monitor removal work and the transportation of material away from the power site.
"We want to avoid that large amounts of radioactively contaminated parts are able to re-enter the cycle of materials," said Elke Sodemann-Müller, who is part of a group observing the dismantling of the Mülheim Kärlich power plant in Rhineland-Palatinate.
Operators are permitted to sell construction materials from nuclear power plants. Several thousand kilometers of copper wire and as much as 300,000 tons of steel can be recycled during the dismantling of a nuclear facility. Since disassembling such a facility can cost up to 500 million euros ($637 million), operators have a financial interest in reclaiming as much from a plant as possible. That's an economic fact Güldner of the German Atomic Forum said he doesn't see a problem with - as long as legal requirements are met.
What becomes of radioactive steel?
German nuclear safety law sets limits on the radioactivity of every piece of material that leaves a nuclear power plant. Materials that leave the site are taken apart and run through specialized "washing machines" to clean them of radioactive particles.
"The radioactivity levels are constantly measured," Güldner said.
But no authority monitors what happens to the materials approved for recycling after nuclear operators remove material under the legally set limits, according to Jan Becker, a spokesperson for the Contratom initiative, which calls itself an information network against nuclear power.
"Whether low amounts of radiation also pose a major health risk is medically disputed," Becker said. "Limits should only suggest what is safe". But, he suspects that an increasing amount of contaminated steel is appearing and, he says, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is also looking into such cases. Many residents of a high-rise apartment in Taiwan were found to have cancer several years ago because radioactively contaminated steel was using in the building. Despite the steel having low levels of radiation, over 60 people died, according to a study by researchers at the National Yang Ming University.
Citizens' initiatives provide extra supervision
Nuclear power plant authorities and the teams responsible for dismantling nuclear facilities dispute such studies and have said the Taiwan building was made from steel imported from China and India. Becker and Sodemann-Müller said they were not aware of a similar case in Germany or of dangerous security breaches during disassembly work in Germany.
"We want to avoid something like that happening here," and "the operators should just know that they cannot do whatever they please," are regularly heard statements among groups critical of nuclear power.
While critics of nuclear power were once labeled "enemies of the state" and even "terrorists," the atmosphere between plant operators and activists has changed, according to Sodemann-Müller, who added that groups like hers are regarded as serious partners and are invited to view the status of dismantling work.