BERLIN - The faults at the nuclear plant at Kruemmel near Hamburg surfaced just three days after Chancellor Angela Merkel declared nuclear energy "indispensable" to Germany.
Merkel told the annual meeting of Atomforum, a group supporting nuclear energy Jul. 1 that if her ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) wins parliamentary elections in September, the new government would reverse the phase-out of nuclear power.
The phase-out was decided in 2000 by the former coalition government of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Greens.
On Jul. 4 the Kruemmel plant, less than 30 kilometres south of Hamburg, shut down following major technical defects. Hamburg, with a population of two million, suffered an hour-long electricity blackout and water shortages.
The operator of the facility, the Swedish energy giant Vatenfall, said first that it had "forgotten to install a valve" in the reactor. By Jul. 7, Vatenfall admitted that there had been several major faults.
Two transformers had failed, leading to automatic shutdown. Several nuclear fuel rods - the tubes that contain highly radioactive enriched uranium ceramic pellets - were found defective. Kruemmel has about 80,000 nuclear fuel rods.
Tuomo Hattaka, head of Vatenfall Europe, apologised for the accidents. "We are really sorry," Hattaka said, and promised "a thorough investigation." The technical head of Kruemmel was sacked.
The nuclear plant had been in production just three days, after going through a year-long technical overhaul at a cost of 420 million dollars. Kruemmel was shut down in July 2008 following a fire in one of the two transformers.
Vatenfall spokesperson Barbara Meyer Bukow said last month after the repairs were completed that "Kruemmel's safety mechanism satisfies the newest standards. We have carried out a meticulous modernisation of the plant."
But a report in the German weekly Der Spiegel published Jul. 13 quoted a worker as saying that the reactor did not respect "elementary rules" of nuclear power technology. Another worker said that "large, sharp metal cuttings" foreign to the plant were found in the cooling water surrounding the nuclear fuel rods.
Hattaka said that the automatic shutdown of the plant demonstrated that "our safety mechanisms function."
The latest faults at Kruemmel come as an inopportune reminder to the ruling party of the technical fragility of nuclear power.
According to a 2002 timetable, all 17 nuclear reactors in Germany would be shut down by 2021. Two reactors have been shut down already, and another eight - including Kruemmel and Brunsbuettel, a nuclear reactor shut down since June 2007 after a technical defect - are to close by 2014.
The four operators of the facilities, the energy giants Vatenfall, RWE, E.on, and EnBW, have been asking for renewal of operation permits for the 17 nuclear power reactors. The CDU and its likely government coalition partner after the next election, the Liberal Democratic Party (FDP), support these calls.
But the faults at Kruemmel have given the SPD and Green parties new fuel for arguing the phase-out of nuclear power. Sigmar Gabriel, federal minister for the environment from the SPD, presently a coalition partner, has called Kruemmel "a monster, which should be shut down for ever."
Gabriel said the debate on the phasing out of nuclear power "will be the defining theme of the election campaign" during the next two months.
"Kruemmel must be shut down definitively," Mathias Edler, nuclear power expert at the environmental organisation Greenpeace told IPS. "The reactor uses very old technology, and in the middle of a region populated by millions of people."
Greenpeace has documented that at least 5,700 technical defects have hit German nuclear reactors since 1965.
An opinion poll carried out immediately after the last incident at Kruemmel showed that 72 percent of Germans support the shutdown of older reactors.
Lutz Metz, nuclear power expert at the Research Centre for Environmental Policy at the Free University of Berlin, says the operating companies have a clear interest in keeping these plants running. "Every single plant produces a net daily profit of at least one million euros," Metz told IPS.