Merkel Furious about Nuclear Mishaps

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is furious with energy company Vattenfall for having been slow to publicly admit the severity of recent mishaps at two reactors in northern Germany. Meanwhile, the company still seems to be in denial.

Sometimes it's not what you say, but when you say it. And for Vattenfall, a leading energy company in Germany which operates the two nuclear reactors near Hamburg which were forced to shut down in recent incidents, it is becoming increasingly clear that trying to cover up mistakes is not the best way to generate positive PR.

Twice in two weeks, Vattenfall demonstrated a shocking degree of reluctance to inform the public about an incident at its nuclear reactor in Krümmel and a separate problem in its Brunsbüttel reactor. And now, even German Chancellor Angela Merkel has joined the chorus of voices (more...) excoriating the company.

"It does make me angry, and it's an experience I had while environment minister, when (safety) regulations are not actually followed from day to day," Merkel, who led Germany's ministry of the environment under former chancellor Helmut Kohl, told German television on Tuesday. "That needs to be cleared up, and I mean strictissimi (i.e. according to the letter of the law), otherwise we can't guarantee ongoing safety."

Sigmar Gabriel, current environment minister in Merkel's cabinet, has also been vocally critical of the way Vattenfall has handled the recent reactor mishaps. On Wednesday, he once again took a swipe at the company, saying: "It is a major loss of face for the company. They are campaigning for trust in atomic energy, they should really be the first to say, 'We are going to lay everything on the table, let's clear it up.' Instead, all we see from them is this strange carrying on." The state of Schleswig-Holstein, where the reactors are located, is looking into whether the company should lose its license to operate nuclear reactors.

Berlin is upset at the fact that Vattenfall attempted to play down two separate incidents which occurred on June 28. The first involved a fire in the Krümmel reactor. At first, the company said that it was a minor incident involving only a transformer. Later, it was revealed that the reactor itself had been affected by the fire and that employees monitoring the reactors had to put on gasmasks to protect themselves from the smoke.

Meanwhile, down the road in Brunsbüttel, the reactor was shut down on the same day as the Krümmel fire. Vattenfall claimed there was a slight leak in a pipe there. Later, it came out that a pipe had exploded due to a build-up of hydrogen.

The company -- which also runs the nuclear plants at Ringhals and Forsmark in Sweden which were both shut down briefly last year following major safety issues -- called a press conference on Tuesday afternoon to address the growing criticism. Klaus Rauscher, head of Vattenfall Europe, said that the Krümmel plant would remain closed until a thorough safety check has been carried out.

But much of his press conference was devoted to complaining about what he sees as politically motivated attacks against nuclear energy. "Many attacks in the past few days have come from a political direction that is against the peaceful use of atomic energy," Rauscher said, according to a transcript posted on the company's Web site. "Without a doubt, the events at the nuclear reactors at Brunsbüttel and Krümmel have been exploited by the opponents of atomic energy."

Merkel, of course, is far from an opponent (more...) of atomic energy, and her Christian Democrat party has recently expressed its support for extending the life of nuclear energy beyond the 2021 shut-down date passed by the government of Merkel's predecessor Gerhard Schröder.

Indeed, she made her position clear once again on Tuesday, saying that some nuclear reactors should be allowed to operate longer than planned. "I am of the opinion that, for safe nuclear reactors, the limits imposed on their operating lives is a problem," Merkel said. "But the prerequisite is, of course, that there is trust. And that everything demanded by the regulations is complied with."

Vattenfall seems to be getting the message. On Tuesday, it went public with another problem found at Krümmel: Fourteen screw anchors apparently don't meet specifications.

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