Security review ordered at German nuclear plants after safety lapse

Stephen Graham, Associated Press
October 25, 2001

BERLIN — Germany’s environment minister on Wednesday urged a review of security at the country’s 19 nuclear power stations after it emerged that safety rules at one plant were broken for years. Lawmakers seized on the revelations to demand the delay of a contested shipment of radioactive waste next month. The convoy’s route to a north German dump was hit by an overnight arson attack.

The debate comes amid concern in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington that nuclear installations could become terror targets. German officials acknowledge power stations here wouldn’t withstand the impact of a hijacked plane laden with fuel.

Confidence in atomic safety was shaken further Tuesday when Energie Baden-Wuerttemberg admitted that fluid in an emergency cooling system at its Philippsburg plant was knowingly kept below regulation levels for years.

Ordering Germany’s 16 states to review safety at the plants, Environment Minister Juergen Trittin said electricity firms must move fast to restore trust. The operator of the Philippsburg plant “has demonstrated irresponsible deficiencies in its security culture,” he said. The reactor, taken offline Oct. 8, must stay out of operation until “full transparency” is established on the cause of the lapse and steps are taken to prevent a repeat, he said.

Trittin, a member of Green party, negotiated an agreement this year with the electricity companies to phase out nuclear power completely within about 20 years. But antinuclear activists want a quicker shutdown. Following the Sept. 11 attacks, Trittin has urged power companies to shut older, less robust, plants sooner and suggested the plants can be switched off quickly if authorities think they are threatened.

But the government has rejected the idea of deploying missiles to bring down hijacked planes, saying the power stations are too close to major airports for the danger to be recognized in time. Officials also stress that they have no current grounds to fear an attack.

The French military has stationed surface-to-air missiles at the La Hague plant, where Germany sends much of its nuclear waste for reprocessing.

Environmentalists warn that the waste shipments, long the target of protests by Germany’s militant antinuclear lobby, also are vulnerable.

German police said Wednesday that they suspected an overnight arson attack on a railroad bridge was linked to an upcoming waste transport from La Hague to Germany’s main storage dump. Tires and straw were rolled under the bridge on a trailer and set ablaze. The bridge, just a few kilometers from the Gorleben storage site, remained closed to train traffic Wednesday as authorities assessed the damage.

Lawmakers from Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s party stepped up calls for the shipment to be delayed to relieve police already working overtime to guard against terrorism. The deputy leader of the Social Democrats’ parliamentary group, Michael Mueller, said putting off the shipment would also help restore the image of the power industry after the security lapses at Phillipsburg and two other plants in recent months.

The exact date of the transport hasn’t been released for security reasons, but antinuclear activists have announced protests for the first week of November.

In April, demonstrators blocked rails and roads to delay the last shipment to Gorleben, despite the efforts of thousands of police officers. Police reported several attempts to sabotage rails and overhead power cables ahead of that shipment.

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