In 2011, Chancellor Merkel announced the death of nuclear energy production in Germany. In reaction to the Fukushima disaster, she surprised the German political world by adopting the longstanding Greens Party position: nuclear power is too dangerous and must go. All 17 German nuclear plants are scheduled to be closed by 2021.
The road to the end of Germany’s nuclear era is deceptively pretty. The two-car regional train out of Göttingen passes through the picturesque villages and sweeping forests of the Weser River valley, honking at every rural crossing. The cows in the meadows barely look up. The villages remind me of my early years in Germany—little knots of civilization amongst the protected fields and forests. Except that now, there is no animal poop on the streets.
Suddenly, amongst the rapeseed fields, there it stands: a hulking steel box, about 160 feet high and 140 feet wide, with no windows. It’s a scary apparition of power on the bucolic landscape. And yet it’s a fake scare. It’s a hollow box, a dead nuclear power plant.
Welcome to Würgassen, the first of Germany’s privately-owned nuclear plants to be dismantled.
Germany’s nuclear phase-out is nowhere more obvious than in a place like Würgassen. Even though the plant was shut down in 1994 because of hairline cracks in the core shield, and has been in deconstruction since 1997, it stands as a stark example of an age that is ending.
Nuclear phase-out is no simple job. Plant owners have two choices—to let a plant cool down for 30 years for a simpler deconstruction process, or the “direct” method: begin disassembly now, but with much higher security challenges.
Würgassen chose the direct method. “We wanted to take immediate advantage of the know-how of the workers,” says Petra Uhlmann, spokesperson for the Eon energy company as she shows me through the plant. “It takes three years just to secure the plant before starting the disassembly.”