Inside the belly of the beast: Rheinsberg nuclear power plant

Filed 3/9/2015 |
The enemy is invisible, silent, devastating and deadly. You don’t know it’s there until it’s too late. You might not know at all; poisoned by a mysterious foe, an unknown illness. It’s relentless, persistent, no putting it out, no flick of a switch will turn it off.
Fifteen years after Kernkraftwerk Rheinsberg was shut down, efforts continue to turn it into a “new-clear” plant. Decommissioning is due to be completed in five years or so, but the refuse from East Germany’s first nuclear power station will continue to cast a threat long after its country was extinguished.
The radioactive fuel rods and reactor have been transported to an overground storage facility, Zwischenlager Nord (ZLN), beside the nuclear power plant at Greifswald at the Baltic. As a “Zwischenlager” it’s seen as a temporary solution. The current wisdom is to bury all the radioactive waste in a bunker 10 kilometers under the ground and forget all about it, once they find a suitable site. So far efforts to find an “Endlager” have been concentrated on Gorleben.
Construction on KKW Rheinsberg began in the late 1950s after an agreement was struck between the East German authorities with their Soviet counterparts in 1956. The Soviets and East Germans worked closely together on the project and Rheinsberg had the first Russian-built VVER-2 pressurized water reactor outside the USSR.
Set between Stechlinsee and Nehmitzsee in an area of great natural beauty, it went into production on May 9, 1966, when it was heralded as a monument to socialist achievement. Grundremmingen in Bavaria only went into operation a few months later. Rheinsberg was the first nuclear power station on German soil; the race against the West was won.
Apparently the plan was to build 15 such facilities, reducing the dependence on brown coal, but that never came to fruition. Greifswald followed and there were plans for the largest power plant in Germany at Stendal, but they faltered too following German reunification.
Run by VE Kombinat Kernkraftwerke Bruno Leuschner, KKW Rheinsberg produced 70 megawatts, enough to power the city of Potsdam, but relatively humble for a nuclear facility.
“It wasn’t intended as a commercial plant, but to show that nuclear power could also be used for peaceful purposes,” explained Jörg Möller of Energiewerke Nord GmbH (EWN), the crowd now dismantling it.
Rheinsberg stopped production in 1990 but it’s not quite “abandoned” – you just can’t leave an old nuclear power station willy nilly from one day to the next – so there’s no hopping the fence to see this site. Security is still quite stringent and passports are required in advance. But I’ll give visiting details later on.
Herr Möller rattled off more facts, numbers, statistics, percentages and reports than a normal being could shake a stick at. Only a physicist would have been able to even consider shaking a stick at them, but he reckoned nuclear power was a misunderstood beast, given a bad name (naturally) through disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima.
But he didn’t touch on other concerns, less attention-grabbing, such as increased prevalence of leukemia among Welsh children near the Irish Sea or above average cancer rates on the east coast of Ireland as a result of the Sellafield power plant in Cumbria, England. Norway has also raised concerns over Sellafield.
KKW Rheinsberg provided employment for around 670 workers. It contributed power to the grid for more than 130,000 hours, giving around 9,000 gigawatts altogether, before it was shut down on June 1, 1990 for fuel rods to be changed and major maintenance works. It would never restart.
The Kernkraftwerk was already on borrowed time by then. It was only supposed to be in operation for 20 years, but ‘tis hard to let such a beast go, and reconstruction work was carried out in 1986/87 to keep it going for another five years to 1992.
It didn’t make it that far though. German reunification spelled the end. Rheinsberg didn’t meet West Germany’s Atomgesetz, safety standards, and would have needed a ton of costly work to bring it up to the required standard. It had served its cause. After a bit of humming and hawing, it was finally decided to close it down for good on Oct. 12, 1990 and let decommissioning begin. Decommissioning was approved by the relevant authorities on April 28, 1995.
Some 342,000 tons of material was to be deconstructed, including around 63,000 tons contaminated by radiation. Radioactive material was stored underground at Rheinsberg, which also had five tanks of contaminated liquid. This would all have to be scrubbed down, cleaned – cleansed even – and fully decontaminated before it was used in other construction projects.
Seventy-four fuel rods were sold to an American company in 1994, while 220 fuel rods and 15 absorption rods were stored in reinforced Castor containers and taken away by train on May 9, 2001. It was 35 years to the day since production at the plant began. Such poetry.
The radioactive rods and reactor, needless to say, were extremely dangerous and a source of major protest. There were 30,000 police involved in the security operation until they reached their destination, for now, at the ZLN by Greifswald.
“In Rheinsberg, it was definitely the case that the cost of construction, operation and then decommissioning is more than was earned through energy production,” Herr Möller admitted.
He said it was madness to dispose of nuclear waste down a deep hole with no way of getting it back – the current disposal solution.
Herr Möller was nuclear through and through. He’d been working at Rheinsberg since 1984 and his father was involved in its construction, but still he had a few surprising opinions.
“I think we can do without nuclear power,” he said, before attacking brown coal for its impact on climate change. He suggested more people will die due to climate change than will ever have died from any nuclear disaster, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“What’s clear is that there’s no such thing as a perfect energy source,” he said.
Now there are about 120 people still working at the former KKW Rheinsberg. It’s not that simple to pull the plug on a nuclear power plant.

What
Rheinsberg nuclear power station, the first such facility (after test models) in East or West Germany. Now closed, thankfully, though not quite yet abandoned.

Where

Am Nehmitzsee 1, 16831 Rheinsberg, Germany.

How to get there
It’s a 10-kilometer cycle from Rheinsberg itself. There’s a train station in Rheinsberg but they’re not too frequent. You might be better off getting the train to Neuruppin and getting the bus from there to Rheinsberg, though then you’ll still have the 10K cycle in front of you. Here’s a map in case it makes things easier. It might.

Getting in
Well, there’s no sneaking in as I mentioned before. You’ll need to go through official channels for this one. You can visit for free on Wednesday afternoons if you register in advance. Contact Jörg Möller on 033-931-57560 or by email at joerg.moeller[at]ewn-gmbh[dot]de to arrange your visit. Don’t forget your passport on the day!

When to go
Wednesday afternoon.

Difficulty rating
3/10, very easy as there’s no sneaking, hiding, creeping or crawling involved. The technical presentation is quite, well, technical. It’s fascinating, but all in German and it lasts at least an hour. There are no presentations in English as far as I’m aware. But after the presentation you’ll be given a little tour of the facility.

Who to bring
Your old physics teacher.

What to bring

Bring a few sambos to ward off the hunger, but I wouldn’t eat them at the plant – just in case. Bring a camera for photos, some water for drinking, and a map so you don’t get lost in the woods on your way home. You wouldn’t know what kind of wonderful creatures you might meet – four-eyed fish, fluorescent owls, six-legged boar etc.

Dangers
Radiation. The rods and reactor are gone but there’s still contaminated material on the site. Otherwise they wouldn’t need another five years to clean it up. An afternoon visit should be OK though. I hope.


Thanks, once again, to Mark Rodden for diligent proofreading.

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