Reactor Affected in Nuclear Power Plant Fire

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Contrary to previous reports, a fire at a nuclear power plant in Germany last week did in fact affect the reactor. The disturbing news comes at a time when the German government is debating the future of nuclear power.

Politicians in Germany are asking why the seriousness of an accident at a nuclear power plant last week was initially played down. Energy company Vattenfall had been quick to reassure the public that the reactor was not affected during a fire at a nuclear power plant last Thursday. Now the disturbing news has been revealed that the fire did in fact have an effect on the reactor.

The fire took place at a nuclear reactor in Krümmel near Hamburg last Thursday. Officials said that the fire only affected a transformer in the plant but not the reactor itself and that there was no risk of a radioactivity leak. No one was injured in the fire.

A transformer at the Krümmel nuclear power plant caught fire last Thursday. Now experts have found that the reactor was affected.

However experts who are investigating the cause of the fire have now discovered that the reactor was in fact affected. In a statement released Tuesday by the Health Ministry in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, which is responsible for nuclear safety, it reported that the authorities had checked "several incidents caused by the shutdown of the reactor."

The experts had found that one of the pumps which supply water to the reactor had shut down unexpectedly, and two safety and relief valves had opened accidentally. The result was that the water level and the pressure in the reactor fell quickly. However the drop in water level and pressure could be "balanced out by switching on a reserve supply system," the ministry said.

"Despite these incidents, the safety of the facilities was guaranteed," the ministry statement read. After the fire, Vattenfall, the utility company which operates the nuclear plant, had claimed that the reactor was not affected by the fire. Now politicians are asking why the seriousness of the problem wasn't made public earlier. The Christian Democrats (CDU) energy expert in the Kiel state parliament, Manfred Ritzek, demanded an explanation Wednesday.

Experts have been studying the scene of the fire in Krümmel since Sunday. They were only able to get into the interior of the transformer hall on Monday, where they found the transformer has been so severely damaged that it cannot be repaired and will have to be replaced. The cable which connects the power station and the transformer may also have to be replaced, Vattenfall said.

The reactor was shut down after Thursday's fire and it is not clear when the power plant, which came into operation in 1983 and is one of the oldest types of reactors still working in Germany, will be able to go on line again.

A second nuclear power plant at nearby Brunsbüttel was also shut down last Thursday after a short-circuit but has been back on line since Sunday. There is speculation that the problem at Brunsbüttel may have caused the fire at Krümmel due to a change in voltage in the network after Brunsbüttel was shut down.

The problems come at an unfortunate time for the German government. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is rumored to be paving the way for a renaissance in nuclear energy as part of her climate change strategy, even though the government is commited to phasing out nuclear power by 2021.

That strategy is currently impossible -- the nuclear shutdown is inked in the coalition contract between the two parties in Merkel's government, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats -- but Merkel is said to be laying the foundations to make nuclear energy an issue in the 2009 federal elections.

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