Germany - Plutonium Investigation n°4/5

The Shutdown Of The Plutonium Industry In Germany

The development of fast breeders in Germany, while initiated in the framework of a European collaboration, was ended before it reached the commercial stage. SBK(Schnellbrüter-Kernkraftwerksgesellschaft), a German-led consortium with participation of utilities from the Netherlands, Belgium and the UK (which sold its share to the German utility RWE in January 1997), started building a prototype fast-breeder 295 MWe reactor at Kalkar on the Rhine in 1973. The project was finally abandoned in March 1991 after DM 7 billion (US$ 4 billion) had been invested, because neither the North-Rhein-Westphalia Land nor the Federal governments indicated they would license it. A Dutch investor decided in 1995 to buy and transform the reactor, which was never used and therefore never contaminated, into an amusement park, due to be opened after the year 2000. Recently, the planned use of the fresh Kalkar fuel in the USA to produce tritium for the military in a nuclear power plant was criticised as an unacceptable link between military and civil activities. A few years before, in 1985, a reactor similar to the 1,200 MWe Superphénix reactor in France (in which SBK holds a 16% share), which had been projected by German and other European electricity utilities, was also definitively abandoned because it had become clear that the breeder line would never be competitive with conventional nuclear power plants.

The WAK reprocessing plant at Karlsruhe's (Nuclear) Research Center was a pilot plant operated from 1971 to 1990. It did not operate as planned and reprocessed only some 208 tonnes of spent fuel during that time. The construction of a commercial-size reprocessing plant got underway at the beginning of the 1980s at the Bavarian Wackersdorf site. After spending DM 2.6 billion (about US$ 1.5 billion), the utilities abandoned the project in 1989. Once the breeder line was given up, there was no longer any reason for investing in large plutonium production facilities, in particular given the fact that the plants then under construction at La Hague and Sellafield would have significant excess capacity after the turn of the century. At the same time, the large energy holding VEBA projected to take a direct share of COGEMA, a move which was first backed by both French and German governments, but which did not succeed. One of the reasons for the failure was that some top officials thought it would be impossible for a German company to get a share of an operator of military nuclear facilities. Instead, COGEMA allocated a share of the UP3 plant's capacity after the year 2000. The abandonment of the German plant was a stroke of luck for the French and British plants, towards which the German utilities turned themselves. However, the reprocessing agreements signed for the period after the turn of the century contain a political clause allowing the Germans to withdraw from the undertaking with modest penalties.

MOX fuel, containing both uranium and plutonium oxides, 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. During 1997, only five plants were partly fuelled with MOX fuel out of the 12 which are licensed for such use.

Until 1990, German utilities were waiting for the Siemens commercial MOX manufacturing plant at Hanau (nominal throughput 120 tonnes/year), which was to replace a demonstration plant on the same site (35 tonnes/year). After an accident during which three workers were contaminated with plutonium oxide powder, the demonstration plant was shut down and the licensing procedure for the commercial plant was stalled. As for reprocessing services, the German utilities have to rely entirely upon foreign companies to provide them with MOX fuel. In an unprecedented move, the French COGEMA has nominated the former Hanau MOX manager Jürgen Krellmann from Siemens as director of the MOX manufacturing plant at Cadarache in the south of France. In order to satisfy Siemens clients, COGEMA now manufactures MOX in France according to Siemens' technical specifications.

According to the German Atomic Act (Atomgesetz), operating licence of nuclear power plants must specify a spent nuclear fuel management scheme six years ahead. Until an amendment in July 1994, the German Atomic Act required reprocessing spent fuel if reprocessing was "justified on technical and economic grounds".For a long time, utilities read this to mean that the Act required the spent fuel to be reprocessed. They thus signed reprocessing contracts with the French COGEMA (4,755 tonnes plus about 2,000 tonnes to be reprocessed after year 2000) and the British BNFL (969 tonnes plus 690 tonnes to be reprocessed after year 2000). German utilities are the largest foreign customer of COGEMA. Spent fuel from the Russian-designed VVERs in the former GDR is stored in storage ponds and no reprocessing for this spent fuel is planned.

The July 1994 amendment states that direct disposal and reprocessing are equally acceptable options for spent fuel management. Since then some utilities have disengaged themselves from their commitments to foreign reprocessors, and are not willing to sign further reprocessing contracts. This situation has pushed COGEMA and BNFL to offer better deals to German utilities (cheaper prices, "reprocessing or storage" or "reprocessing and MOX manufacturing" contracts, less waste to be returned...). Recently, the federal government stated it planned to tax the reserves made by utilities to pay for reprocessing costs. Utilities have protested that this discriminated against the reprocessing solution for spent fuel. One thing is for sure: it will put even more pressure on the French and British plutonium producers.

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