The Lubmin plant on the Baltic coast was home to five of East Germany’s six nuclear reactors and supplied 10 percent of the communist country’s electricity when it was taken off the grid in 1990 following German reunification.
“It was Russian technology, but it wasn’t the same model as Chernobyl,” the Ukrainian power plant responsible for the world’s worst nuclear disaster, in 1986, says Marlies Philipp, the former plant’s spokeswoman.
The site was mothballed for a few years before work began on dismantling it in 1995.
Decontamination work has been going on ever since, at a cost to date of €4.1 billion ($5.8 billion), a sum which does not include the actual demolition of the buildings.
“We don’t have money for that,” says Philipp, who used to work as an engineer. Of the 5,500 staff employed there at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, 830 have managed to stay on to work on decommissioning and decontamination.
“We want to preserve the jobs of workers still here because not all are of retirement age,” says Philipp. Work at the plant is expected to continue until 2013 or 2014.
At first it was “learning by doing,” she says but experience now means “we can hope to win contracts for decommissioning plants in the west” when they too are taken off the power grid.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government decided in the wake of the disaster at the Fukushima plant in Japan in March to shutter all 17 of Germany’s nuclear reactors within 11 years.
Visitors allowed into the decontamination workshop at Lubmin must wear radioactivity detectors and change into special protective clothing.
Working from inside containers, equipped with portholes, employees use high-pressure water, abrasive dust jets and acid baths to decontaminate the rooms one at a time.
“Don’t think radioactivity just disappears. It stays there as ground dust which has to be disposed of,” says Uwe Kopp, in charge of one of the workshops.
Once decontaminated, machinery parts are piled into boxes to await a final radioactivity control before being sent for recycling or disposal. “You can’t undo a single rivet without having to fill out a document in triplicate,” says Philipp.
“Everything is done to remind us that we are dealing with dangerous material,” adds Kopp.
In addition to radioactivity checks, workers must go through metal detectors and their work site is surrounded by cameras and protected by guards with dogs.
Contaminated material from the plant is held in dozen of containers and barrels, awaiting a final government decision on a site for long-term storage.
The end of the nuclear era in Lubmin forced the town to look in new directions, and it has tapped into the growing renewable energy sector, in particular wind power.
One of the two North Stream gas pipelines, which is due to start pumping gas from Russia by way of the Baltic Sea by the end of the year, also runs through its backyard and promises to pick up some of the slack in supply left by the nuclear phaseout.
The nuclear site was shut down “for economic and political reasons,” says Philipp. “We were proud of our plant.”
“Today it’s our colleagues in the west who must feel the same way. It’s their turn now.”