It took Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government just a few weeks after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident to order the complete shutdown of Germany’s nuclear power generation. But it will take decades to remove and store the thousands of radioactive fuel rods and clear away millions of tons of concrete rubble before these power plants are actually gone.
Some of the nuclear plants will continue to feed power into the national grid until 2022 and it may be 2040 before the last of the domed plants, cooling towers and exhaust chimneys are leveled. In the meantime, a hardy band of engineers, managers and skilled workers who have devoted most of their careers to nuclear energy will oversee the demolition and burial of their life’s work with a bittersweet dedication. “We don’t expect from anyone that they approve of the exit, but we do expect that they accept it,” says Guido Knott, chief executive of E.ON’s Preussen-Elektra unit, which has the responsibility for winding down the utility’s nuclear power operations.
Germany’s U-turn on nuclear energy as a bridging fuel in its ambitious Energiewende, or power transition, program to reduce emissions is one factor that may result in missing a 2020 target of lowering emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels. Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats and their once-and-future coalition partners, the Social Democrats, were reportedly ready to officially renounce that goal, but the final coalition platform merely refers to closing the gap to that target "as quickly as possible."
The embarrassing admission comes amid continued criticism of Germany’s continued reliance on lignite, or brown coal, for power generation. Delegates attending the November COP23 climate conference in Bonn could not help but notice the disparity of Germany’s putative leadership role in fighting climate change and its inability to give up one of the dirtiest fuels for power generation.
As a manager, you have to do such things without emotion. You can’t mourn after things. Stephan Krüger, Manager, Preussen-Elektra
All this sounds a note of irony for nuclear power's true believers at Preussen-Elektra, who call themselves kernis – a diminutive of Kernenergie, the German word for nuclear power, which might be rendered as “nukies” in English. Even though nuclear energy was controversial in Germany from the beginning, the nukies hunkered down in belief that they were doing the right thing. Many still believe that, lending them a strong feeling of solidarity.
Another irony inherent in the German opposition to nuclear energy is that neighboring France generates three-quarters of its electricity from nuclear power, the highest percentage in the world. The geographic proximity leaves millions of Germans just as exposed to a nuclear accident as if the plants were located in Germany.
Three of E.ON's eight nuclear plants are still in operation, producing cheap power and contributing half a billion euros each year to the company’s operating earnings. That does not offset the €380 million in annual costs to dismantle shuttered plants, on top of the €10 billion E.ON must pay into the fund to create permanent storage for nuclear waste. The company also reserved a further €10 billion for future dismantling and interim storage of nuclear waste.
The company has become so experienced in dismantling the plants that it now offers consulting services to engineers from Switzerland, Brazil, the United Arab Emirates and Korea. It is some consolation to the staff, however small, that their expertise is in demand even as they work to speed up elimination of their own jobs. Of the 2,000 still employed at Preussen-Elektra, half are supposed to be gone within 10 years, and all of them by 2040. The guarantee of at least another 10 years was hammered out in negotiations with the unions, in exchange for concessions on salary and perks.
Herbert Hockgeiger is 52 and has worked for 28 years at the Grafenrheinfeld plant that is now being dismantled. The engineer was a shift manager and he still believes in a peaceful role for nuclear energy. “Unfortunately, Fukushima put us to an abrupt end,” he said. “We were convinced that what we were doing was right.” But now, he added, “We will bring it efficiently to an end.”
Others see the wisdom of withdrawing from nuclear energy. Stephan Krüger, 54, has worked in nuclear for 27 years. Born and raised in East Germany, where nuclear power was more accepted, Mr. Krüger planned and built nuclear power plants for Siemens and Areva in the belief that nuclear power was beneficial. The Fukushima incident changed his mind and now he heads up the demolition project for Preussen-Elektra. “As a manager, you have to do such things without emotion,” says Mr. Krüger. “You can’t mourn after things.”
Thomas Rust, 51, with his gray beard and ponytail, would look right at home at an anti-nuclear demonstration. Instead he is in charge of the interim storage of the nuclear fuel rods onsite at Grafenrheinfeld. The rods are packed into dry casks and these casks are placed in a reinforced storage facility called Bella. Germany has as yet to find a permanent solution to storing nuclear waste, and in the meantime the onsite storage continues to unsettle local residents.
Mr. Rust considers this apprehension unjustified. “There are thousands of storage casks worldwide, and not a single one has leaked so far,” he says. For this engineer, it’s all about physics. “Nuclear fission is damned intelligent,” Mr. Rust says, “in comparison to burning coal.”
As it abandons its emissions target for 2020 because of its reliance on coal, the Berlin government clearly does not agree. The two mainstream parties now want to focus on the 2030 goal of reducing emissions by 55 percent from 1990 levels. This target is binding from Germany’s commitment to the Paris accord.
In the meantime, E.ON’s Preussen-Elektra staff will continue its work of shutting down and removing the company’s nuclear plants. The planning, construction, operation and dismantling of power plants is measured in decades, so it will be a long goodbye to nuclear power in Germany.
Jürgen Flauger covers the utility industry for Handelsblatt. Darrell Delamaide is a writer and editor for Handelsblatt Global in Washington, DC. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected].