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Nuclear shutdown

June 21, 2012

All Germany's 17 nuclear power plants are set to be shut down by 2022. But decommissioning and eventually deconstructing the plants can take much longer. Government and energy companies are facing a gigantic challenge.

Dismantling work at the Lubmin power plant
Image: Energiewerke Nord GmbH

What to do with a decommissioned nuclear power plant? Seal it up under concrete? Completely take it apart for removal? That's the decision that power companies operating nuclear plants now have to make. By law, they are required to organize the shut down and proper disposal of their facilities. But regional authorities are also involved in the deconstruction as their approval is required for changes made to the plants.

The Federal Environment Ministry is currently working on an overall plan for the coordinated dismantling of Germany's nuclear plants. Environment Minister Peter Altmaier said he wants to get all nuclear plant operators involved in negotiations.

"When the plants where set up, a coordinated approach proved useful. This could be helpful again now with the dismantling, both for the technical procedures as well as the approval process," a ministry spokeswoman told DW.

A difficult challenge

The deconstruction of Germany's 17 nuclear power plants is a first. Officials at energy company RWE, which operates four plants in Germany, said they are confident the company is well prepared for the job.

"Across Germany, and also at RWE itself, there is enough experience when it comes to deconstructing nuclear facilities," RWE spokesman Lothar Lambertz told DW. "A large part of the job will be done by specialists who are also involved in the construction and operation of such plants."

Germany has some experience in taking apart nuclear power plants. In Lubmin, in the country's north-east, some 900 workers and specialists have been working on decommissioning a Soviet-era reactor since 1995 and hope to be done by 2014.

The Lubmin facility
Dismantling of the Lubmin facility is in its 17th yearImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"The decommissioning is a massive project. You need an incredibly detailed plan and at the same time have to remain flexible - it all takes some time," said Gudrun Oldenburg of the regional energy company EWN. The company is a successor to the East German state energy company and is responsible for the decommissioning of former East Germany's largest reactor.

Dangerous and expensive

The decommissioning is particularly difficult as the job requires strict safety procedures as materials in the facility are still radioactive. Some parts are initially still stored on-site. But the radioactive waste cannot stay there.

"The slightly to moderately contaminated radioactive waste will be brought into an abandoned mine," Oldenburg said. "The spent fuel rods have to be brought to another final storage site; there are special conditions such a site has to meet. Unfortunately, we have not yet found such a site."

The government has estimated around 4.1 billion euros ($5.2 billion) for the decommissioning of the Lubmin plant and the storage of the radioactive waste. The cost of a single reactor bloc therefore costs around 500 million euros.

Radioactive waste at a research storage facility
There is no approved long-term storage facility for radioactive wasteImage: GNS Gesellschaft für Nuklear-Service mbH

Who will foot the bill?

Environmental organizations like Greenpeace are worried that private energy companies do not have the resources to dismantle their nuclear plants properly. The companies often have founded subsidiaries that run the nuclear plants with the parent companies being financially responsible for the subsidiary only until 2022. Should the subsidiary go bankrupt after that date, it would be up to the state - and ultimately taxpayers - to pay the dismantling bills.

That's a scenario RWE said would not occur at its plants.

"The company has enough resources to meet its obligations with regard to decommissioning and deconstructing nuclear power plants," the company said. "Each year, those resources are being updated and checked by an independent expert."

RWE logo outside its headquarters in Essen, Germany
RWE is among Europe's largest energy companiesImage: AP

Nuclear power is "out"

In addition to the financial burdens of decommissioning a nuclear plant, there are other challenges, according to Oldenburg of energy company EWN. One is the lack of skilled workers and nuclear power experts.

"The whole sector of nuclear power has got a bad reputation so among young engineers it is not as attractive as it used to be to go in that direction," Oldenburg said. "But this is an issue where we need the support from politics as well as all of society. It is not enough to just say we want to shut down nuclear power - we have to be aware of how much effort and how much time it will take."

Author: Rachel Gessat / ai
Editor: Sean Sinico