The vat of still blue water containing enriched uranium rods at Germany’s oldest nuclear plant looks as harmless as a public swimming pool.
But the stifling heat in the domed reactor building and the sight of workers in orange jumpsuits with Geiger counters, white gloves and layers of plastic covering their feet betray the risks of nuclear power generation. Oxygen masks hang on the walls of the earthquake-proof reactor building and on leaving the area in RWE’s Biblis plant in southwestern Germany, visitors are subjected to two body scans for radioactive contamination. The risk underlined by these precautions partly explains why Germans have for decades nurtured an aversion to nuclear, which supplies just under 30% of power needs compared with 80% in France, the world’s leading nuclear nation.
The industry is growing globally and other European nations including Britain and Finland are reviving nuclear. But Germany -- where about half the power comes from coal -- has so far stuck to a 2001 law to phase out nuclear reactors by 2021. The ground is shifting, however: oil prices which have risen fivefold since 2001, fears about energy supply security and the need to curb carbon dioxide emissions have boosted support for nuclear in Europe’s biggest energy-consuming state.
The issue will be significant in September 2009’s election, when nuclear-friendly conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel will fight the anti-nuclear Social Democrats (SPD) with whom she has shared power since 2005. “It’s a very emotional topic and people, including politicians, don’t always base their arguments on fact,” said Reinhold Gispert, head of the works council at Biblis. Data shows German reactors are safe -- they have a low rating of incidents on a scale set by the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. “We maintain and modernize all the time so we really can say the plant is safe,” said Juergen Haag, chief engineer and deputy head of Biblis. Although there is no prospect Germany will build new nuclear stations, there are signs some closures could be put on hold.
CHANGE OF COURSE?
Two plants have been decommissioned and there are 17 more to go, but public opinion could nudge lawmakers toward a change. A survey last month by pollsters Emnid showed 52% of Germans support later decommissioning for atomic plants, up from 49% in March. “There’s been movement but the question is if the ball will move forward more,” said Gispert of the Biblis works council. “For us it’s about jobs, lives and families.” Biblis has an installed capacity of 2,500 megawatts of electricity and its turbines, whose deafening roar resonates through its building, produce power for 6.5 million households.
Its two reactors, opened in 1974 and 1976, are due to close in 2009 and 2010. Haag says they could run for 60 years and RWE is waging a court battle to win a reprieve until 2013 by seeking to transfer quotas of power produced from another RWE plant which closed before it had used up its full allocation. (Reuters)