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Explosion at German fuel plant kept secret for 11 years.

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#493-494
Special: Agenda 2000: Will it increase nuclear safety in Eastern Europe?
19/06/1998
Article

(June 19, 1998) On June 8, the German newspaper die Tageszeitung revealed a severe accident. About 300 workers were contaminated with plutonium after an explosionin the Nukem fuel plant in Hanau, Hessen Germany on 20 January 1987,more than 11 years ago. This accident has never been reported before.

(494/extra.4886) WISE Amsterdam - Nukem had reported an accident in early 1987, but a 'minor' one in February, and not the one on January 20. However, at least since March last year the Ministry of Environment had a report of the Hanau public persecution office (Staatsanwaltschaft) in which was reported that an 'accident involving an explosion' had been kept secret by Nukem. There was no details in the report about the how and when. However the public persecution office asked the ministry not to publish the report.
Last December on a public meeting in Hanau the 'thesis of a secluded accident' was mentioned. Then the authorities ordered an investigation. Four experts, on order from the Hanauer public persecution office (Staatsanwaltschaft), wrote a report about it and handed it over to public persecution office on April 6, 1998. The German newspaper die Tageszeitung (Taz) somehow got a copy of the report and published about the accident on June 8. The newest report from April 1998 has yet to be evaluated by experts from the Ministry and the Oeko-Institute, which is expected to be ready this summer.

To hush up the explosion, measurements of emissions during January and February 1987 were not mentioned in the annual Nukem radiation protection report. On photographs of the buildings, made at that time, damage can be seen. Internal Nukem documents notice the accident.

According to the Taz, several from the 300 contaminated workers have apparently died from cancer. Nukem however refuses to give the names of the contaminated workers. Nukem denies workers were contaminated and said the explosion had become prescriptive, since it happened more than 10 years ago. This may not be true, because the public persecution office had already extended the period of their investigation to the time of the old Nukem/-Transnuklear scandal, in search of proof for the causes of the death of a former Nukem worker who received large doses in the 70s. A half year ago, the Bundesverband Buergerinitiativen Umweltschutz (BBU) brought a criminal charge against Nukem because the worker had died of cancer, caused by radiation received during his work. This was posthumous acknowledged by the competent professional society.
The expert report says there have been heavy irregularities from February 1997 on with the accounting of radiation doses from workers. The BBU called on the Ministry of Environment to install a Special Working Group to investigate the complete Nukem complex.

Both Alkem and Nukem were accused in 1987 for violation of the German Atomic Law, because they had no legal license and had changed and expanded the plants without giving notice. Ministry officials from the Christian Democrats (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD) had given licenses in advance, without public inquiries. Alkem (owned at that time by Siemens and Nukem) fabricated plutonium fuel for the Kalkar fast breeder and for German nuclear reactors. If the January 1987 explosion had become public, Nukem and Alkem knew for sure they would not have received a license. It is remarkable that the accident was successfully hidden for eleven years.

The second accident in 1987, end-February, was not that `harmless'. About 200 milligram plutonium should have been released. At least eight workers received radiation doses far above the permitted annual dose. Nukem did not even have a licence to handle plutonium. Four uranium fuel samples, received from the Nuclear Research Institute in Karlsruhe, but which originated from the Euratom Transuranium Institute in Karlsruhe, were 'mysteriously' mixed with plutonium, which was not mentioned on the package, Minister Steger of Economic Affairs said later.

By coincidence, the Green Party/Social Democrats coalition in the state of Hessen ended in February 1987 after one year, when the Green minister of Environment, Joschka Fischer, was fired by SPD prime-minister Boerner. The Greens had asked the SPD not to give a licence to the Alkem and Nukem fuel plants at Hanau. The SPD refused to give in to the Green Party and agreed to a further 10 year operation of Alkem, but decided not to license an expansion of the Alkem plant.
In April 1987 in Hessen, the SPD lost the elections. The Christian Democrats and the Liberals (FDP) formed a new government. It is ironical that this, pro-nuclear, government had to decide, after new accidents and incidents, to close the old Nukem plant. A new Alkem MOX plant, planned to start operating in 1989, never functioned.
In March 1991, the CDU Minister of Environment in Hessen, unexpectedly granted the last partial license for the new Siemens MOX plant (Nukem had sold it share to Siemens), just a few weeks before a new Green-red coalition took over. SPD and the Greens decided to review the license. In June 1991 Green Minister Joschka Fischer ordered the closure of the Siemens MOX plant. In spite of all attempts by Siemens and the Federal Government to fight this order and to get the MOX plant licensed, it was of no avail. In July 1997 Nukem reported it would dismantle the old Nukem uranium plant. All Hanau fuel plants are closed now. The dismantling and decontamination of the closed plants will probably reveal more cases of contamination. End of January 1998, Siemens applied for a license to dismantle the old MOX fuel plant, which was idled after an 1991 accident. By 2003 the work will be ready: estimated costs: DM 1 billion (about US$450 million).

Sources:

  • die Tageszeitung, 25 February & 19 March 1987, 14 March 1991, 8 & 9 June 1998
  • The Guardian (UK), 17 March 1987
  • Der Spiegel, 21 March 1988 and 16 March 1998

Contact: Initiativgruppe Umweltschutz Hanau. Körnerstrasse 6, D-63452 Hanau Germany.
Tel: +49-6181-85473; Fax: +49-6181-295 670