German MOXplan - the future of nuclear power

By Karin Wurzbacher, Umweltinstitut Munchen

With the signature under the NPT started the civil nuclear programme in Germany. The first nuclear facility was a research reactor that started operation in 1957. Today 19 nuclear power plants are operating and nearly the same number of plants has been shut down or abandonned. The whole domestic plutonium industry programme, including fast breeder reactors and commercial reprocessing plants, is cancelled. This is, apart from the extremely high costs, a result of the political opposition. However, instead of abandoning completely these high-risk activities, the German industry exported the nuclear risks and activities into neighboring countries, notably France and United Kingdom. Currently the German electricity utilities have reprocessing agreements with French Cogema and British BNFL, which seperate plutonium from German spent nuclear fuel. Both companies, as well as the Belgian BelgonuclQaire, produce plutonium bearing mixed oxide (MOX) fuel which is used in some of the German power plants.

According to the German Atomic Act operating licence of nuclear power plants must point out a spent nuclear fuel management scheme six years ahead. Till 1994 the official governmental policy obliged the utilities to reprocess all their spent fuel so that they signed reprocessing contracts. This obligation has been changed. Direct storage of spent fuel is permitted under a renewed atomic law of May 1994. Since this policy change the German utilities are not willing to sign further reprocessing contracts, some contracts they have cancelled. Nevertheless Germany ownes, as of January 1998, a stockpile of about 24 tonnes of unirridiated plutonium in various forms.

MOX fuel, containing plutonium as fission material was experimented with rather early in German reactors. A demonstration programme was started in 1966 and the first commercial plant to be fuelled with MOX was the Obrigheim PWR which received MOX fuel in 1972. Today 12 plants are licenced for MOX use but only 5 were partly fuelled with MOX. The first permit for boiling water reactors, Gundremmingen B and C, had been granted in 1994 and loaded in July 1995 despite intense opposition. Once the German fast-breeder reactor programme was given up in 1991, there was no longer any reason for plutonium production. MOX (fabrication and fuelling) remains the only alibi for continuation of reprocessing.

The German Siemens trust had two MOX fabrikation plants in Hanau; one small demonstration facility in operation and a new commercial one which was almost complete for fullscale operation. After an accident during which three workers were contaminated with plutonium oxide powder, the demonstration plant was shut down and the licencing procedure for the commercial plant was stalled. As a result of that, the German utilities were forced to seek new MOX fabrication contracts in France and Belgium.

In addition there is a fierce opposition against transports of nuclear spent fuel and of high level radioactive waste returning from La Hague in France to the interim storage facilities in Gorleben and Ahaus. Organized demonstrations have involved tens of thousands of citizens, activists and farmers and have required the intervention of tens of thousands of policemen. Actually the German Government has stopped all spent fuel transports because of significant contamination beyond the legal limit. The German utilities have known of the problem since the middle of the 1980s without informing the authorities. This will probably have consequences for the German utilities and the spent fuel management.