Germany's atomic phaseout: How to dismantle a nuclear power plant

Germany now has just seven nuclear plants left in operation, but what becomes of those that are already decommissioned? Bits of them are recycled, and could ultimately end up in our kitchens.

When Egbert Bialk looks at the giant demolition robot perched on top of the cooling tower at the Mülheim-Kärlich nuclear power plant, it makes him happy.

"Happy that the eyesore is finally being dismantled," he told DW. "Some said we should leave it standing as a memorial or piece of art. But for me the tower is like a symbol of humanity's arrogance, of us playing with fire." 

Bialk began campaigning against the reactor when it was built near his home in the 1970s, and has since joined the local chapter of environmental group BUND to observe the 1 billion euros ($1.2 billion) decommissioning of the facility.

The dismantling of the western German plant, which will take two decades to complete, started in 2004, seven years before the Fukushima disaster that prompted Angela Merkel's government to announce the nation's complete withdrawal from nuclear power by 2022.

The specially designed robot removes three meters of concrete in height in one go and takes one week for one round

With just a couple of years to go before that deadline, seven plants  are still in operation, and even after they've shut down for good, it will take many more years before all the country's reactors have been safely dismantled, and contaminated sites cleared and deemed free of radiation

One of the most pressing questions during this lengthy process, is what to do with the radioactive waste?

Read more: Japan's Tepco fights for return to nuclear power after Fukushima

Buried in mines

The first things to be removed are the heavily contaminated spent fuel rods, which contain the nuclear fuel that is converted into electrical power.

Because Germany doesn't yet have a long-term depository for highly radioactive waste, the rods are currently stored in so-called Castor containers in several locations across the country.

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By the time all the nation's reactors have been decomissioned, there will be around 1,900 such containers in interim storage. And there they will remain until a suitable location for their permanent resting place has been found

Read more: Nuclear waste in disused German mine leaves a bitter legacy

"We expect the storage phase to take 50 years," Monika Hotopp, spokeswoman of BGE told DW. 

German environment minister Svenja Schulze inspects the depository Konrad, a disused mine, which will store thousands of tons of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste

Exactly what it will all cost, is unknown. Much depends on the ultimate location, but the 4.2 billion euro preparations of a former iron ore mine known as pit Konrad to be used as the final depository for low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste could serve as some kind of indicator.

Once things like technical equipment and parts of buildings exposed to nuclear fission reaction for years, have been buried in the mine, it will be filled up with concrete and sealed.

"When sealed, it's safe and there should be no danger of nuclear radiation for the environment," Hotopp told DW.

Environmental groups however, warn that nuclear waste remains a threat even when buried deep under the ground.

"The depositories have to be able to contain radiation for up to 500,000 years," local environmentalist Bialk told DW. "We are giving a time bomb to future generations." 

Building materials recycled into roads and pots

These castor containers store highly radioactive waste

And what happens to the rest of the waste? The hundred of thousands of tons of metal, concrete, pipes and other building materials that accumulate during the dismantling process?

Because under German law, the entire plant, including offices and the canteen, are considered radioactive, no single item can be removed before operators can prove it is no longer contaminated. Once considered free of radiation or at least to be below the safety limit, the waste can be disposed of at regular landfills and recycling sites.

Environmental groups and locals criticize this practice, on the grounds that once materials have been recycled, nobody knows where they end up. Concrete from nuclear power plants could be used to pave our roads, while metals could be melted and turned into pots and pans.

"Melted metals could even be turned into braces for kids; they could be contaminated by radiation and no one would know," he told DW. "I think it would be useful to track where the materials from nuclear sites end up." 

But experts don't regard post-decommissioning monitoring as necessary.

A nuclear power plant gets dismantled step by step

"The risks are minimal," Christian Küppers, who specializes in nuclear facility safety at the environmental research center Oeko-Institut, told DW. "The safety limits for radiation correspond to what we are naturally exposed to in the environment,"

All the material from nuclear power plants that expose radiation below 0.01 millisieverts per year can be recycled, Küppers continued.  

By way of comparison, the Oeko- Institut says people are exposed to natural radiation of 2.1 millisieverts per year in Germany, and a one-way transatlantic flight exposes those on board to between 0.04 and 0.11 millisieverts of radiation.

From nuclear site to "greenfield"

Once the nuclear power plants have been completely dismantled, all the waste removed and when there is no longer any measurable trace of radiation, the premises can be returned to greenfield status.
At this point, the premises are considered to be regular industrial sites, and can be sold as such.

40 years of German anti-nuclear action

A movement is born

Germany’s anti nuclear movement got its start in the early 1970s, when protestors came out in force against plans for a nuclear power plant at Wyhl, close to the French border. Police were accused of using unnecessary force against the peaceful demonstrations. But the activists ultimately won, and plans for the Wyhl power station were scrapped in 1975.

40 years of German anti-nuclear action

Civil disobedience

Following the success of civil disobedience in Wyhl, similar protests were held in Brokdorf and Kalkar in the late 70s. Though they failed to prevent reactors being built, they proved that the anti-nuclear movement was a growing force.

40 years of German anti-nuclear action

No to nuclear waste

Gorleben has seen fierce protest against the nuclear industry ever since plans to store nuclear waste in a disused salt mine there were first announced in 1977. The site is a sparsely populated area close to the then-border with East Germany. Yet locals quickly showed they weren't going to accept radioactive material close to their homes without a fight.

40 years of German anti-nuclear action

People power

From the beginning, the German anti-nuclear movement brought together church organizations, farmers and concerned local residents - along with student activists, academics, and peace protestors who saw a link between nuclear power and the atom bomb. Being at the frontline of the Cold War meant the threat of nuclear war loomed large in many German minds.

40 years of German anti-nuclear action

Breaking into mainstream politics

In the late 70s, anti-nuclear activists joined with other environment and social justice campaigners to form the Green Party. Today, this is a major force in German politics and probably the most powerful Green Party in the world. They won their first seats in the German federal parliament in 1983.

40 years of German anti-nuclear action

Worst fears realized

In 1986, a reactor meltdown hundreds of miles away in Ukraine hardened public opinion against nuclear power in Germany. The Chernobyl disaster released radioactive fallout across Europe. In Germany, people were warned not to drink milk, eat fresh meat or let children play on playgrounds, where the sand might have been contaminated.

40 years of German anti-nuclear action

End to nuclear becomes law

In 1998, the Green Party came into German federal government, as the junior partner in a coalition with the Social Democrats. In 2002, the "red-green" government passed a law banning new nuclear power plants and limiting the lives of existing plants so that the last would be switched off in 2022.

40 years of German anti-nuclear action

Keeping the pressure up

Even with an end to nuclear power finally in sight, the anti-nuclear movement still had plenty to protest about. Many activists, including in the Green Party (with leaders Jürgen Tritten and Claudia Roth pictured above in Berlin in 2009) wanted nuclear power phased out far faster. Meanwhile, the German movement continued to join international calls for a global end to nuclear power.

40 years of German anti-nuclear action

Stop that train

Then there was still the question of what to do with nuclear waste. By 1995, containers of radioactive material were coming back from reprocessing abroad for storage at Gorleben. Over the years, transport of these "castors" has regularly been met with mass protests, including clashes with police.

40 years of German anti-nuclear action

New lease of life for nuclear

Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Party had always opposed the law limiting the life of Germany's nuclear power plants - so after the party came to power in 2009, it effectively scrapped it by prolonging the lives of power plants - a major setback for the anti-nuclear movement.

40 years of German anti-nuclear action

Fukushima changes everything

In 201,1 the meltdown of a Japanese nuclear reactor saw Merkel's government make a rapid about-face. Within days of the Fukushima disaster, it passed a law to shut down the last of Germany's nuclear power plants by 2022. The phase-out was back on, and eight reactors were shut down that same year.

40 years of German anti-nuclear action

The fight goes on

Since the grassroots action of the 70s, Germany's anti-nuclear movement has seen the country commit to ditching nuclear altogether. It's also helped push forward a shift to renewables, making Germany an international example in the fight against climate change. But the protests go on. This week, activists stopped the first boat carrying nuclear waste.

Likewise pit Konrad. Once the mine has been closed and sealed, which is expected to happens around the year 2100, the land on top of it will also be returned to greenfield space. Theoretically, houses could then be built on it.

Whether anybody would want to live there, is another question, says Monika Hotopp from BGE, the federal company in charge of the long-term storage sites.

Because ultimately, nuclear power has become synonymous with danger. And as Bialk puts it, even when all the  plants have been dismantled and the waste stored, the problem won't have gone away. 

"First, the radioactive waste remains dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years. Second, other countries still rely on nuclear power," he said. "There are more than 50 nuclear power plants in France alone, and if an accident were to happen there, it would affect us, too."

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