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GERMANY: Breakdowns Renew Case Against Nuclear Energy

Julio Godoy

BERLIN, Jul 10 2007 (IPS) - A series of technical breakdowns in two of the oldest nuclear power stations in Germany has led to renewed demands to phase out nuclear energy.

Between Jun. 28 and Jul. 7, the nuclear power stations at Kruemmel and Brunsbuettel, both situated in the north of the country some 20km away from the port city Hamburg, were shut several times following technical problems of undetermined gravity.

The Swedish energy giant Vatenfall, which operates both generators, was accused of failing to properly report the accidents to the local government.

Vatenfall finally admitted Jul. 7 that the Brunsbuettel generator, which had been shut down less than a week before, had to be partially taken out of service again due to a concentration of hydrogen in the reactor that had created a risk of explosion.

Earlier, on Jun. 28, a short-circuit led to automatic shutdown of the plant. It started off a fire in one of the plant&#39s transformers, and as a consequence, a second nuclear power station located nearby, Kruemmel, was also automatically shut down.

Vatenfall admitted that inadequate handling of the original problems of Jun. 28 at Brunsbuettel led to a series of disturbances during the following week, which in turn forced the partial shutdowns.

Gitta Trauernicht, minister for social affairs in the federal state of Schleswig Holstein, announced that her administration was considering withdrawal of permission to Vatenfall to operate nuclear power stations in the area.

"According to our laws, dependability and impeccable technical skills are indispensable conditions for operating nuclear power stations," Trauernicht said at a press conference Monday.

"I am going to use all legal instruments at my disposal to sanction these cases," she added. "I won&#39t baulk at taking strong measures against Vatenfall, since its structures appear to be failing."

Vatenfall has just sought a permit to continue operating Brunsbuettel beyond 2009, when the power station is due to go out of service. Brunsbuettel is the oldest nuclear power plant in Germany.

Vatenfall has been facing similar problems at its nuclear power stations in Forsmark in Sweden. In July 2006, one of the Forsmark reactors was shut down after a short-circuit. Lars-Olov Höglund, former construction chief at Vatenfall, said then that this was the most serious nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster of 1986.

Vatenfall&#39s chief executive officer in Germany, Bruno Thomauske, announced at a press conference that all technical information on the nuclear power stations would be made available on the Internet. "We understand that the public expects swift, comprehensive information," he said.

The recent breakdowns come after an energy &#39summit&#39 of the federal government and major electricity generators to set German&#39s energy policy within the framework of European Union directives to reduce greenhouse gases by 20 percent by 2020.

The summit did not bring concrete results, but now the breakdowns accidents at Brunsbuettel and Kruemel have restarted a debate on further use of nuclear energy.

Some 12.5 percent of the electricity consumed in Germany is generated at nuclear power plants.

The four major companies controlling electricity generation in Germany are asking for revision of a decision taken in 1998 by the former German federal government to phase out the country&#39s oldest nuclear power plants by 2023.

The decision was based on nuclear safety and environmental considerations, especially disposal of radioactive waste.

The 1998 decision to phase out nuclear power by the ruling coalition then of the Social Democratic (SPD) and Green parties, was confirmed in 2005 by the present government, formed by the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the SPD.

But leading CDU members have been demanding revision of the phasing out. Christian Wulff, prime minister of the federal state of Lower Saxony, has argued that Germany needs nuclear energy "for the foreseeable future."

But several energy and environmental experts consider nuclear power both dangerous and avoidable. "Nuclear energy is an old, inefficient, dangerous technology," Wolfram Koenig, director of the state agency for radiation protection told IPS. "In the medium term, we won&#39t need it for electricity generation."

Nuclear power makes less than two percent of the total energy consumed worldwide, he said. "According to the United Nations Environmental Programme, some 3,000 new nuclear power plants would be needed to make a noteworthy contribution to reducing greenhouse gases emissions."

But the world&#39s reserves of uranium, needed to fuel these plants, would not suffice to meet such a demand, Koenig said. In addition, he said, the nuclear energy&#39s environmental footprint includes the "unsolved problem of disposal of radioactive waste, the safety considerations associated with the operation of nuclear power plants, and the political risks of internationally spreading a technology which produces material used in atom bombs."

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