Transport Special - Plutonium Investigation n°6/7

The German Perspective Of The Saga

DSIN informs the German Ministry for Environment and Reactor Safety, officially for the first time, on the evening of 23 April 1998 about the contaminated transport problem. What the exact information is, is unclear. Why the German ministry is informed at the same time as French ministry is also an enigma. The first written information is supplied by fax on the morning of 24 April from Paris to Bonn. And as in France, it takes the German ministry one week to publish a press release on 30 April 1998 which only informs us that "radioactive spots above the limits stipulated by the transport regulation were identified by COGEMA on the floor of rail cars with transport casks for spent fuel". And further, "according to DSIN, surface contamination has also been detected in the case of certain shipments from German nuclear power plants". This is the same type of language as in the DSIN press release issued the same day, no figures, no background information.

On 12 May 1998, officials of the German Environment Ministry meet with representatives of DSIN in Paris. Detailed figures on the shipments carried out in 1997 and 1998 are transmitted to the German officials. The numbers are extremely high, as the Ministry explains in a press release dated 14 May 1998: "In 1997, 55 shipments were carried out from German nuclear power plants to COGEMA. In eleven cases concerning six German power plants (Isar, Phillipsburg, Grohnde, Grafenrheinfeld, Brunsbüttel and Stade) increased contamination levels were noted. In six cases so-called 'hot-spots' of a surface size of a coin with maximum activities of up to 13,400 Bq have been measured on rail cars at locations which are not accessible during transport. In five cases, on the floor of the recovery pan of the rail cars (surfaces of about 300 cm2) with maximum contaminations of up to 13,000 Bq/cm2 have been identified." Such a surface adds up to about 4,000,000 Bq! In 1998, two more cases of contaminations of the rail car floor up to 10,000 Bq/cm2 have been noted (see figures of the month for details).

When Lacoste, on 13 May 1998 presents his report to the press, he states that the maximum level identified is 8,000 Bq/cm2, "a completely singular point which must correspond to a particle. The following point must be at 1,500 Bq/cm2". Lacoste declares this 24 hours after having transmitted to the German officials data which indicates that this level was neither a maximum nor as exceptional as he indicates. The fact that the higher levels were identified on rail cars which came in from German plants is hardly a convincing explanation. All of these values have been measured at the Valognes site in France. The German Ministry surprisingly "shares the opinion of the French safety authority DSIN that the partially significant transgression of the limit of 4 Bq/cm2 did not have any consequences to public health". However, this judgement is based only on the assumption that the contamination would not be accessible to the public during the transport. Given the fact that it is the question of non-fixed contamination and particles, and taking into account that the air circulation around the spent fuel casks is designed to allow for an optimum heat evacuation from the rail car, there is no guarantee whatsoever that the contamination has not reached the outside. In fact, a significant share (10 out of 44 or 22%) of rail cars coming into Valognes from French plants have been contaminated from the outside as well. It is rather probable that no outside contamination has been detected by coincidence, in other words, given the small number of samples per rail car (17), it is more likely that many contaminated spots simply have not been identified. Nevertheless, the German Minister Angela Merkel prohibits any further transports first to La Hague, and within a week forbids transports to Sellafield and to the intermediate storage facilities at Ahaus and Gorleben until the inquiry into the circumstances is complete.

On 19 May 1998, the German Federal Ministry meets with its Länder counterparts. It becomes clear that in several cases spent fuel transports from German power plants have also been identified contaminated in the UK Sellafield plant. The following day a hearing of top level utility representatives, the transport companies Nuclear Cargo + Service as well as NTL (Nukleare Transportleistung), officials from various ministries, the Federal Radiation Protection Office and others takes place in the Environment Ministry. Coming out of the meeting, Minister Merkel is visibly furious. During the hearing the utilities admit that they have known of the problem since the middle of the 1980s without informing the authorities. Merkel stresses in a press release that "this attitude has been sharply criticized by the Environment- and Transport Ministries". The utilities are informed that all the spent fuel transports are suspended until further notice.

Merkel notes further that "information has not been supplied by the authorities in France for reasons which are not to be evaluated by the Federal Environment Ministry".

Whereas it is still unclear when the french utility EDF was first informed by COGEMA of the contamination problem and hardly any information has been published, the evidence that German utilities have been aware of the problem for a long time is now on the table. The operators of power plants in Lower Saxony, for example, were perfectly aware of the problem for 15 years:

  • between 1984 and 1989, at least 8 shipments from the Unterweser power plant had been found contaminated at Valognes, containers between 7.4 Bq/cm2 and 74 Bq/cm2 and rail cars between 14.8 Bq/cm2 and 7,400 Bq/cm2, already almost 2,000 times the limit
  • in 1990, 3 railcars from Grohnde were identified contaminated up to 3,700 Bq/cm2
  • between 1991 and 1996, 12 shipments (9 casks and 4 rail cars) from the Stade plant were found contaminated respectively between 10-150 Bq/cm2 for casks and 30 to 3,000 Bq/cm2 for rail cars.

The general outcry about the cover-up has been significantly more intense in Germany than in France. The police trade union speaker Konrad Freiberg calls the nuclear industry a "cartel of liars" which "has driven democracy against the wall". The pressure on Merkel is enormous. She basically has no way out: either her administration has known about the contamination without making it public; or the monitoring and control over the sector is so inefficient that her civil servants did not know.

On 27 May 1998, Merkel appears before the Environment Committee of the Bundestag and presents a 25 page report plus several hundred pages of data on contamination level measurements. The report recognises that the surface contamination limits have been determined for public health reasons and are derived from recommendations of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency): "The limits are precautionary values, which have been laid down for the limitation of radioactivity in particular at accessible, touchable surfaces for the protection of people who handle packages on a daily working basis." DSIN's Lacoste after having pretended first that the limits correspond to the lowest measurable levels (which is technically wrong) continues in wonderful harmony with the operators EDF and COGEMA to use the terminology of "cleanliness values".

Merkel's report is a document of accusation against the electricity utilities. It notes that the Federal Rail Office (EBA) has initiated legal inquiries into the responsibilities of all companies involved. The Minister does not rule out legal repercussions.

The same day, the Green Group in Parliament introduces a proposal for a resolution which calls on Minister Merkel to resign and to withdraw from the transport operators the recognition of reliability (a precondition to obtaining an operating license according to the German Nuclear Law). The Greens ask for reprocessing to be banned and for the introduction of a nuclear phase-out plan. On 3 June 1998, the State Environment Office in Darmstadt informs the Hessian Ministry of Environment that it has identified in the grounds of the public rail station in Darmstadt a hot spot on a COGEMA truck spent fuel rack of 50,000 Bq. That is the highest level identified so far but most likely not the maximum out there.

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