While British Prime Minister David Cameron was donning hard hat and overalls at Hinkley Point, England, last month to announce the construction of the first nuclear reactor since the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant disaster, coxless fours were rowing silently past Krummel nuclear plant near Hamburg, Germany.
Kernkraftwerk Krummel, on the banks of the Elbe in the small town of Geesthacht, is one of eight nuclear power plants shut permanently in the country following the Fukushima meltdown.
Nine more, built relatively recently and which have unblemished safety records, will be shut by 2022 as part of Germany’s energiewende march from nuclear to renewables. A year later, if all goes to plan, Britain will switch on Hinkley Point C — two reactors built at a cost of ￡16 billion (US$25.51 billion) by France’s state-owned EDF, with funding from China.
“The Brits are crazy,” Claudia Roth, incoming deputy speaker of the German Bundestag and former head of the Green party, said in an interview. “How can one build new nuclear plants when all the world understood, or should have understood, that Fukushima was not an exception, but a part of the industry?”
“It is completely irresponsible. Fukushima proved that Chernobyl [nuclear meltdown in 1986] was not an exception unique to old Soviet plants, but a fact of the industry,” said Roth, who displays her green credentials by wearing a hat and a scarf to keep down the heating in her Bundestag office. “If Japan cannot even guarantee safety, it is totally irresponsible to build new plants. I don’t understand why Britain is doing this. You are an island, you have wind, you have sun, you have water, you have everything... Why the hell are they doing this? The government is really crazy.”
The nuclear industry, which supplied more than a quarter of Germany’s power before the 2011 shutdown, says the German government is crazy to be closing nuclear plants that cost billions of euros to build and have years of life left in them.
Closing the country’s entire nuclear fleet was first proposed in 2000 and due to take 20 years, but politicians had wrangled over that timetable. That was until Fukushima, when the government abruptly ordered shutdowns to start immediately and be completed within 10 years.
Nicolas Wendler of the German Nuclear Forum, the industry trade body, said the decision was “illogical” and “emotional rather than practical.”
“We are totally convinced that our nuclear plants are operated safely,” he said. “European Union stress tests show that German plants are among the safest in the EU. The arguments for the closure are not based on safety, it is political.”
Wendler said the shutdown was costing taxpayers billions. A green levy on energy bills has risen fivefold since 2009 — adding 34 euros (US$47) a year to the average German household bill. German energy bills are already the third-highest in the EU (UK bills are the 13th-highest out of the 27 member states).
The tax will bring in 23.6 billion euros of funding for the German government’s aim of producing 80 percent of electricity from renewables by 2050. Currently 23 percent of German electricity is from renewable sources, compared with 4 percent in the UK. The European Renewable Energy Council said the UK’s slow progress means it is likely to miss its target of producing 15 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2020.
Wendler says the German nuclear industry is “resolved” to a nuclear power free Germany as the political consensus against nuclear will make it impossible to overturn the ban. However, analysts expect that the Green party’s decision to rule itself out of the future coalition could allow German Chancellor Angela Merkel some wiggle room in scaling back the speed of the shutdown, expected to cost 550 million euros.
Merkel has already named tackling the soaring cost of energy as one of four “big tasks” facing the forthcoming grand coalition. The others are the eurozone crisis, Germany’s aging population and federal reforms.
The owners of Germany’s nuclear plants — E.ON, RWE and Sweden’s Vattenfall — are suing the government for about 16 billion euros for the enforced closures, which the industry claims were unconstitutional. The legal battles, winding their way through the German courts and the World Bank’s International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes in Washington, are not expected to be resolved until 2015.
Roth said higher bills and the threat of compensation payouts were the “price we have to pay if you want to stop these terrible dangerous things.”
However, many of those living in the shadow of Krummel power station say they would rather live with the nuclear risk than soaring bills. The nuclear debate has centered on Krummel because the plant, owned by Vattenfall and E.ON in a 50:50 joint venture, fell victim to a series of accidents that led to it being dubbed the “Krummel monster.”
Built near the factory where Alfred Nobel discovered dynamite, the plant caught fire in 2007, when a transformer short-circuited. The fire did not reach the reactor, but the plant was shut immediately while the company and officials investigated.
More than 700 million euros was spent repairing the damage and investing in new technology at Krummel and a similar Vattenfall plant nearby. The Krummel reactor was switched back on in 2009, but within days another transformer short-circuited. Further millions were invested tightening safety and the plant was preparing to go live in March 2011, when the tsunami struck Japan and caused the Fukushima meltdown.
“Nuclear is dangerous, but there are dangers in everything and Germany is known for having the strictest controls,” said Sandra, a chemical assistant at Krummel. “Germany is stupid to close these plants after investing so much money. All the countries around us aren’t closing their plants and the UK and Turkey are building new ones. If something happens, the fallout and the horror will not stop at the border.”