Ten months ago, in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant (NPP) disaster two months earlier, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that Germany would close all of its 19 NPPs between 2015 and 2022. It was an audacious move, as Germany’s NPPs produce about 28 percent of the country's electricity, but Merkel’s government felt it was necessary in order to forestall a similar fate overtaking one of the nation’s nuclear installations.
Amid the glare of worldwide publicity, one fact largely overlooked was that nine German NPPs will still be operating for up to a decade. With 10 other German NPPS now offline, the nine still operating mean that Berlin has only halved its chances of a Fukushima Daiichi type disaster, not ended it.
So, how prepared are German authorities to deal with an incident of Fukushima’s magnitude?
Not much, apparently.
Germany’s Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) made an intensive study of the events precipitating Fukushima. In their conclusions about the catastrophe, BfS officials concluded that the nuclear complex’s vulnerability to earthquakes, and given its coastal position, tsunamis, was underestimated. Other conclusions included the observation that Fukushima Daiichi’s technical design was significantly flawed and that the nuclear power plant (NPP) operators were apparently insufficiently prepared to deal with emergencies. As regards an emergency, BfS officials concluded that Fukushima Daiichi was woefully unprepared because the technical design of the reactors lacked a number of safety features, such as a usable emergency electricity supply catering to all emergency situations, backup secondary technical measures which could be implemented during emergency situations, or clear instructions for the NPP operators to implement in the event of an emergency.
Now it was time to predict what would happen if such an event occurred at a German NPP. BfS specialists decided to model such a scenario. First, they compiled 2010 weather data for both the Philippsburg 2 NPP in the southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, and the northern Unterweser NPP in Lower Saxony. When it first came online in 1978, the Unterweser NPP was the largest nuclear reactor in the world, but it was brought offline in March 2011 and decommissioned two months later.
As the BfS scenario unfolded, on 1 December 2010 fuel elements begin melting at the Philippsburg 2 NPP. Engineers release pressure to prevent the facility from exploding, and for the next 25 days, radioactive clouds move northwards toward the Rhine Valley, passing over Speyer and Hockenheim on their way towards Mannheim and Heidelberg. The BfS maps calculated that radioactive clouds would pass over vast swaths of German territory, including the cities of Linkenheim-Hochstetten, Schwanewede and Bremerhaven.
If the Philippsburg 2 NPP suffered an accident, Karlsruhe, Heidelberg, Mannheim, Ludwigshafen and Darmstadt could all be subjected to radioactive fallout, requiring iodine tablets to be distributed through a far broader area. The simulations concluded that people living up to 60 miles from the stricken NPP would need to stay inside their homes, but how long hundreds of thousands of people would be able to stay at home without provisions remains unanswered.
The single most unsettling observation of the study was that radioactive material would contaminate far larger areas than previously assumed and entire cities would need to be evacuated. Last autumn the study results were made available to the Federal Environment Ministry (BMU), working groups, project groups and specialists. Since then the BMU has been meeting with officials from the Interior Ministry (BMI), the state interior ministries and catastrophe response specialists but nothing overall has been accomplished. In the worst-case scenario, BMI experts said that up to one million people might need to be evacuated - quickly.
What kind of scenarios should these officials be looking at?
Equipment failures, including electrical fires knocking out coolant pumps to spent fuel ponds.
Terrorist attacks, to name but a few.
The last word belongs to BfS President Wolfram Koenig, who said last year, "The events in Fukushima require that we ask ourselves seriously whether the existing allocation of responsibilities and resources in Germany is adequate for today's requirements." Up to now the answer is obviously “nein.”
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com