Nuclear power will keep Germany busy long after the plug is pulled. Not only the final storage, but also the dismantling requires patience, as the largest dismantling in Europe in Lubmin shows.
Piece by piece, the diamond-coated steel cable cuts through the 80 centimeter thick reinforced concrete. Where large filters used to clean the air of possible radioactivity, it is now mainly loud and stuffy. Double protective suit, respiratory protection – it’s “quite exhausting,” says Mario Schmidt.
In 1979, at the age of 16, he began his apprenticeship at the Greifswald nuclear power plant. Now the 59-year-old is tearing it down. You need staying power for nuclear power – even if the plug has long since been pulled.
At the end of this year, the last three nuclear power plants in Germany are to be taken off the grid, despite widespread criticism of the decision. Two should initially remain available as a reserve. Federal Economics Minister Robert Habeck (Greens) did not want to shake the fundamental nuclear phase-out. Thus, the dismantling of the last kilns is also imminent in the foreseeable future.
According to the Federal Office for the Safety of Nuclear Waste Management (BASE), 36 reactor blocks in Germany – not including research reactors – are or were affected by dismantling. Three have been completely dismantled, and 27 are being dismantled. For the remaining six – the three still operating and three already decommissioned reactors – applications for decommissioning and dismantling have already been made.
Elaborate dismantling a Herculean task
Western Pomerania shows how complex the dismantling can be. According to the responsible disposal plant for nuclear plants GmbH (EWN), it is the largest dismantling of a nuclear power plant in Europe. Of the eight planned blocks, five were in operation, one of which was in trial operation. The nuclear power plant was connected to the grid between 1973 and 1990 and provided eleven percent of the electricity requirement in the GDR.
Due to safety concerns, Lubmin and the significantly smaller GDR power plant in Rheinsberg in Brandenburg were shut down after the fall of the Wall. You didn’t understand that at the beginning, says EWN employee Bernd Kaukel. “For us, the technology was the most modern that existed in the GDR era.” The 62-year-old also started his apprenticeship at the nuclear power plant after school in 1977 and is now involved in the dismantling. “Now it’s a job like any other for us, but when we started it, we destroyed our own job and of course that was very painful.” In 1989 almost 5000 people were employed here. Currently there are more than 850.
The dismantling has been going on since 1995. The desired completion has repeatedly been postponed. The second half of the 2030s is currently assumed. The building should then be gutted and freed from radioactivity to such an extent that it can be released after appropriate measurements, removed from the scope of the Atomic Energy Act and demolished conventionally. The BASE assumes that the last nuclear power plant in Germany could be ready at the beginning of the 2040s.
The highly radiating parts were removed in Lubmin years ago and taken to a nearby interim storage facility. The dismantling of the gigantic industrial complex remains a Herculean task. According to EWN, about 440,000 square meters of concrete surface still have to be examined – around 62 soccer fields. The mass to be mined is estimated at around 1.8 million tons. Everything that is to be disposed of as normal scrap must be dismantled so that it fits into boxes measuring 1.20 by 0.8 meters so that the material can be measured in a special facility.
The arsenal used is impressive: wire saws, acid baths, demolition robots, plasma cutters. And the safety precautions are also hard to imagine for outsiders. Nothing works without multiple changes of clothes, elaborate security checkpoints with radiation measurement and a friendly female voice from the tape saying: “Thank you very much, no contamination.”
The costs are correspondingly high. Estimates have kept rising. In 2014 they were still at 6.6 billion euros, but now it is expected to be in the high single-digit billions, including the dismantling in Rheinsberg. This is tax money. EWN is owned by the federal government. In contrast to the GDR nuclear power plants, the energy companies in the old federal states have to pay for the dismantling themselves. Here, the costs per block are estimated at around one billion euros. These costs were included in the electricity prices, writes the Association of Nuclear Technology Germany.
Search for a repository
The situation is different when it comes to the disposal of radioactive waste. The nuclear companies Eon, RWE, EnBW and Vattenfall had transferred a total of around 24 billion euros to a sovereign wealth fund in 2017. With that they are out – that was what was agreed. Investment experts should increase the money significantly in the long term in order to finance the costs for interim and final storage. According to Kerntechnik Deutschland, the funds are likely to be sufficient. Critics have expressed doubts about this in the past.
The search for a repository for high-level radioactive waste continues. The planned repository for low-level and intermediate-level waste – the Konrad shaft in Salzgitter, Lower Saxony – is not yet finished. Disposal is a challenge, according to BASE. Radioactive waste is currently being stored in Germany at 16 interim storage locations – mostly near former reactors, such as in Lubmin. A new interim storage facility is already being planned here. This could also be needed when the proverbial green meadow has long been next door.
Interim storage facility in Germany Overview of nuclear power plants dismantling in Lubmin New interim storage facility in Lubmin