This story is part of our feature series called "Overland," in which nine local reporters write stories for ZEIT ONLINE about their regions. The series is part of our section called #D18, in which we are seeking to explain Germany to Germany.
The basement contains three weeks of supplies, including 15 cases of mineral water, canned soups, noodles and rice. Alice Hermens also shows off the emergency kit she has assembled in an IKEA box: protective suits, masks and iodine tablets. The Hermens family is well prepared for an emergency.
Should the sirens start howling and the Aachen region be plunged into chaos, Gereon Hermens will slip on a white protective suit in his office, pick up his three daughters from school and make his way home on foot. Before the water-pressure plummets, Alice Hermens will fill up the water tanks and bring the guinea pigs inside. Once everyone in the family is home, they plan to lock themselves in, turn on the radio to wait for instruction and hope that they survive the nuclear accident more or less unscathed.
"We've simulated everything and realized in doing so just how crazy it is," says the tall and slender Gereon Hermens. "There was a time when the fear exerted significant influence on our lives." But gradually, he says, they have been able to take a step back and are no longer participating in every single protest. "Sometimes, you just have to ignore it, otherwise it becomes unbearable." The Hermens are sitting in the yard of their single-family home in Brand, the idyllic rural district on the outskirts of Aachen and just a few kilometers from the Belgian border. More to the point, it is located 70 kilometers (44 miles) from Huy, the site of the Tihange nuclear power plant, a structure that has been striking fear into the region's residents for years.
Cracks, Cracks, Cracks
The story of the Tihange plant reads like a German-Belgian economic thriller, complete with safety problems, deep-seated fears, cronyism, deceit and double standards. It also testifies to the difficulty of bidding farewell to risky technology when it delivers cheap electricity and hefty profits.
The story begins in 2012, when ultrasonic tests on reactor pressure vessels at the two active Belgian nuclear power plants – Tihange and Doel – revealed mysterious cracks deep inside the steel. The two reactors in question, Tihange 2 and Doel 3, had to be taken offline. Reactor pressure vessels are vital components of nuclear power plants, essentially steel cocoons containing the fuel rods and the site where the nuclear chain reaction takes place. If one were to burst, a nuclear meltdown would result. Just a few hours after such an accident, prevailing west winds might blow the radioactive cloud into the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where Aachen is located. A study conducted by the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna found that in a worst-case scenario, "the impact on Aachen could be compared to that of towns within the 20-kilometer exclusion zone of Fukushima."
In March 2014, Tihange 2 and Doel 3 were ordered to be shut down again due to "unexpected results" in tests of the facility's structural integrity. Tests had revealed that the number of cracks had risen to 16,000. Residents of the region around Aachen believed the problematic reactor at Tihange would not be allowed to go back online.
But then Belgium's Federal Agency for Nuclear Control, or FANC, reached a surprising decision. In late November of 2015, the authority granted permission to the reactor's operator to restart Tihange 2 despite the concerns. FANC and the French nuclear plant operator Electrabel had come up with a new explanation for the cracks. The company announced that month that inspections had revealed the cracks had been there from the very beginning and were not the result of the power-plant's operation. They were, the company said in a statement, "hydrogen flakes that were produced during the forging process." The expanding number of cracks, the statement said, was the result of the increased sensitivity of the testing equipment, which had improved over the years. FANC insisted that the structural integrity of the vessels in question was "only slightly reduced" and was still 1.5 times greater than the limits imposed by law.
Protests and Iodine Tablets
Residents of municipalities, like Aachen, near the Belgium border have long since ceased trusting such statements. Indeed, the region has become home to what is likely the largest anti-nuclear power movement to be seen since the 1980s. The black-on-yellow message "Stop Tihange" can be seen everywhere: on car stickers, as flags flying from apartment windows.
Helmut Etschenberg is the political face of these protests. As head of the regional council, he represents the interests of several communities surrounding Aachen. He is also active in improving cooperation among Germans, Dutch and Belgians in the region, which is located where the borders of the three countries meet. Two-and-a-half years ago, he had his own anti-Tihange epiphany during a demonstration at the famous Elise Fountain in the heart of Aachen. A demonstrator in a wheelchair gave him a handbill and demanded he make a speech. A short time later, he was onstage.
Since then, he has felt called upon – as the region's political leader – "to fight until the thing has been shut down." His office has printed informational brochures, held podium discussions and uploaded explanatory videos to the internet informing people what to do in the event of a serious accident. In August 2017, he launched a program to distribute iodine tablets to tens of thousands of residents as a precaution. In the case of a significant radiation leak, the tablets help prevent the thyroid gland from absorbing radioactive iodine.
Why Wasn't Tihange Shut Down Long Ago?
The lobby of Etschenberg's office is currently hosting an art exhibit with several apocalyptic landscapes and an advertising pillar covered with postcard-sized images of Chernobyl, radiation victims and children suffering from hydrocephalus and swollen feet, both of which can be caused by radiation. There are also images of animals with stunted extremities. A poster hangs next to the pillar showing a fictitious text message: "Darling, it has happened: Tihange has melted down. Here in Aachen, it is chaos, sirens everywhere, the networks are collapsing ... I am so afraid!"
With his gray hair carefully combed back, his dark-blue, plaid suit and white shirt with cufflinks, Etschenberg doesn't exactly look like an anti-nuclear power activist. A member of the center-right Christian Democrats, Etschenberg has been head of the regional council since 2009 and his critics accuse him of sowing panic when it comes to the Tihange issue. But Etschenberg merely folds his arms casually on the conference table in his office and shakes his head. "This isn't about panic mongering," he says. "It's about people's real concerns. We would all be affected in an emergency." He says he isn't a blanket opponent of nuclear power, but that he believes the Belgian government is being irresponsible when it comes to Tihange. "They are gambling with human lives and doing so for one reason only: economic interests."
Back in 2003, Belgium agreed to work toward a phase-out of nuclear power, but the amount of electricity generated by alternative sources is allegedly still insufficient. Indeed, the Tihange and Doel power plants still cover 50 percent of the country's electricity needs and Etschenberg estimates that the Tihange 2 reactor alone generates close to a million euros in profits per day. "It's money that the Belgian state does not want to do without," Etschenberg says. "That's the only possible explanation for the fact that the reactor is still in operation."
Etschenberg believes the decision to keep Tihange 2 online has been influenced by a powerful atomic energy lobby. He mentions a man who has become extremely controversial on both sides of the border: Jan Bens. Until the end of April, he was head of the Belgian nuclear power agency FANC and consistently insisted that the cracks were innocuous and the reactor safe. Like most Tihange opponents, Etschenberg harbors serious doubts about the ex-FARC head's ability to arrive at an independent assessment of the reactor's safety. After all, Bens spent almost his entire career, from 1978 to 2007, working for Tihange operator Electrabel. He then became deputy director of the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) before joining FANC in 2013. Since then, he has been responsible for monitoring the work of his former employer. He is also no stranger to corruption, as he admitted in a 2015 interview with the Belgian daily newspaper Le Soir. When he was working for Electrabel on a project in Kazakhstan, Bens told the French-language paper, he was offered bribe money in envelopes and "I offered others bribes as well. In Kazakhstan, everything is done with cash."
A Reactor with Numerous Defects
In 2016, Etschenberg asked FANC to send him a copy of the official document, complete with the signature of the Belgian king, which authorized the restarting of the reactor in 2015. "They continue to withhold the document from us to this day," Etschenberg says in a rage. "We suspect that it doesn't exist."
Now, the courts might force the nuclear facility to close. In 2016, Etschenberg's regional council filed two legal complaints in Belgium, a case that is now supported by 130 municipalities from Gelsenkirchen in Germany to Luxembourg. The first oral arguments are to be heard by a Belgian court this fall. The plant operator, however, is unfazed. Reached for comment, an Electrabel spokeswoman said the company is aware of the anti-Tihange activists' fears but doesn't quite understand where they are coming from. After all, the spokeswoman said, the plants are submitted to 50 independent audits each year. "Plant safety and that of our 2,000 employees has the highest priority."
Numerous nuclear power experts have a different view. In mid-April, a number of prominent representatives from the International Nuclear Risk Assessment Group, invited to Aachen by the regional council, demanded that Tihange 2 be shut down. In several presentations, the experts analyzed the cracks in the reactor pressure vessel, described in detail what the consequences of a meltdown would be and, using meteorological data, documented the possible effects of nuclear fallout on the border region.
And that's not all. They also accused the plant operators of having manipulated important documents to ensure that the reactor could begin operations. "We are now certain that the cracks were identified during the construction of the reactor. They are mentioned in the initial construction logs, but in the later documentation compiled for authorization, they have suddenly disappeared," says the physicist Wolfgang Renneberg, who, until 2009, was head of the German Environment Ministry department tasked with nuclear safety and nuclear waste disposal. Today, he works as a consultant for the Aachen region. "There is only one explanation: Either the applicant misled the officials, or the officials went along with it. A reactor with so many defects would otherwise not be approved by any controlling agency in the world."
Renneberg accuses FANC of playing down the problem. "I have been dealing with nuclear facilities for quite some time, but this is the worst case I have ever encountered. This reactor must be taken offline immediately."
Belgian Opposition Is Slowly Growing
Germany is also partly to blame for the facility's continued operation – in part because there is no unified political position on Tihange. In February, North Rhine-Westphalia Governor Armin Laschet demanded the reactor be shut down, echoing a similar demand made by then-German Environment Minister Barbara Hicks in 2016. But last year, Hendricks was forced to admit that she authorized the delivery of dozens of fuel rods from German factories to the Belgian nuclear facility. In response to the ensuing criticism, the Environment Ministry in Berlin was unperturbed: "It occasionally happens that the legal situation does not permit everything that one might find politically desirable and correct," the ministry said in a statement.
It also emerged that the state of North Rhine-Westphalia had indirectly invested in the facility. The state's pension fund had invested 23.3 million euros ($27 million) in the plant operator in the form of bonds and index certificates. When the investment was revealed last year, the state quickly sold off the controversial assets.
Belgians, for their part, long remained largely silent about the Tihange controversy – perhaps because the country intends to phase out nuclear power by 2025 anyway, similar to Germany's own 2022 phaseout plans. But slowly, resistance is on the rise among Germany's neighbors. A few weeks ago, the powerful Walloon city of Liège joined the demands to shut down the reactor. "That is a huge success," says Etschenberg. "The pressure is building."
The Bonds of a Human Chain
Protesters in Germany have also sensed that the mood is changing among the Belgian populace. "For years, we had the impression the Belgians simply weren't interested. Perhaps they didn't want to be told what to do by their big neighbor Germany," says Gereon Hermens. "But things are beginning to happen." Last summer, the various protest groups organized a cross-border human chain with some 50,000 participants. The Hermens family and their immediate group of activist allies made up some 200 meters of the chain. "It was a great event that also triggered something in the Belgians," says Hermens.
The electrical engineer Lars Vollpracht also took part in the human chain. The 50-year-old lives together with his family in a house in the Haaren district of Aachen and has been protesting against Tihange since 2012, when he became gripped by fear of a nuclear accident. The father of three boys hardly misses a rally and goes to organizational meetings held every two weeks or so in a community center in the city.
"Tihange is a defining issue in my life. Sometimes, I'll spend an entire day thinking about it, even if I know that it's not good for me," he says, staring into the room with his brow furrowed. He points to the most current issue of the regional paper, which again has a report about Tihange. "Sometimes, I don't want to read that stuff anymore, because it also weighs on me. But usually I do anyway."
He says his family life has also suffered due to his frequent absences to take part in protest actions. And yet: "What if it really happens? Nobody thought Fukushima would happen either." It is time to bring nuclear energy to an end, Vollpracht says.
Together with Alice Hermens, Vollpracht is working to convince schools to develop emergency plans in case of a nuclear accident and to acquire iodine tablets, protective suits and masks. There is some interest, but the regional government in Cologne, which is also responsible for Aachen, put a stop to the effort, at least officially. In a statement, the authority noted that the assembly of German state education ministers did not approve such measures.
No Special Risk
On a recent weekend in late April, Vollpracht again took part in a protest action against Tihange, this one organized by the Aachen Action Alliance Against Atomic Energy. Together with other German activists, Vollpracht cycled to the Belgian city of Eupen to file a criminal complaint against the Belgian interior minister, against FANC and against plant operator ENGIE Electrabel. "The police officers were very friendly and had even prepared letters of acknowledgement," Vollpracht says. Some 176 demands for Belgian public prosecutors to launch an investigation were filed in Eupen that day.
And despite its having spent years blocking all efforts to shut them down, doubts as to the safety of the reactors appear to be growing within the Belgian government as well. In March, Brussels ordered 45 million iodine tablets for free distribution to the populace. Interior Minister Jan Jambon insisted on television that the move should not make people concerned. "At the moment, there is no special risk connected with our nuclear power facilities," he said.
Translated by Charles Hawley.