The truth: swansongs in the quiet kiln

On Saturday, the last three nuclear power plants will be taken off the grid. The truth was in the old concrete Emsland nuclear power plant. A shocking report.

Illustration: Three men in white protective suits walk behind each other.  According to the text, these are workers leaving a decommissioned nuclear power plant

Illustration: Rat snail

It’s just a small click, then Martin Stramm holds the broken “off” switch in his hand. “Oh ha!” he exclaims: “An incident!” Liberating laughter in the control room, champagne glasses clinking, it’s just a small ceremony. “The switch was never used.” Stramm asks a technician for a pipe wrench. A few awkward movements and courageous kicks against the control panel later, the nuclear age in Lingen is over.

The control room smells of that typical eighties smell: cold war and cold breeders. The consoles and walls are in chic beige. “It’s not smoke,” assures Stramm. “Although we were still allowed to smoke here back then. The good old days.” The only modern accessory is a small house altar with fresh plastic flowers in front of Christian Lindner’s likeness.

The sub-district manager of the IG mining, chemicals, energy and the mayor of Lingen are sobbing in each other’s arms. “Today, the Emsland is sinking back into insignificance,” the politician wails. “We don’t have anything else, the Ems isn’t even a decent river!”

We move through the silent kiln. In the corridors we meet former employees carrying their belongings from the power plant in cardboard boxes. Nicole Dubberke, a rustic woman in her fifties and assistant security chief, allows us a look: a waving cat, a lunch box, an opened bottle of Doppelkorn, and several empty ones. “Don’t look so shocked! Don’t worry, we don’t drink to that level here. We call it base load.”

We point to the Geiger counter in her box. Isn’t it factory property? Dubberke laughs: “Oh, we had to bring everything ourselves. Personal initiative and team spirit!” She lowers her voice: “And it’s better not to get a TÜV in hand, maybe it counts violins, but otherwise it doesn’t matter.”

Dubberke winks conspiratorially. “Oh, I’ve got an idea…” She scurries back into her office and pulls an “Accidents 2021-23” folder out of a beige safe. There is also a “Reportable Events” folder. “These are just the official 171,” says Dubberke. We count another 16 “Incidents” folders. “The others are already empty, but of course this one had to remain open until today, everything has to be correct.” Then she scribbles “Cancelled. switch i. Controller, 15.4.23, 12:01 to the last page of the report and signs off. Then she pushes all the sheets from the folder into the shredder. The shredder is fighting, it’s the very last day for him too.

concrete memories

Others are also stealing atomic souvenirs today. Inside the cooling tower, Mahmud Dogan from the early shift is chiseling a few memorabilia out of the concrete. “Like the wallpeckers back then! I’ll sell them online!” When the Wall fell, Dogan was eleven and the nuclear power plant was already connected to the grid.

Many of the staff have been here ever since. Barbara Dinklake and her husband Björn met in 1991 while sealing a leak in the cooling circuit. “It was love at first sight,” they recall. “Once irradiated together, that welds together. The power plant is our life. This is where we found each other, this is where we got married, this is where our children were conceived, maybe.” Barbara grins at her husband. How many children do they have? “I always say two and a half,” says Björn. “Actually three,” explains Barbara. “But our Lutz was born without legs, with only one kidney.”

A touching scene occurs outside the reactor block. Friedemann Sinzig, shift leader for reactor safety, is standing in the grass with a birdcage. “This is Particle III,” he introduces us to a canary. “’III’ because he’s already the third. Smart guys therefore call it a gamma particle. He always accompanied me here on my tours. He senses radioactivity before anyone else!”

Even his grandfather in mining always had a bird with him. Now Sinzig releases his feathered friend. “Take care, little one,” he breathes and opens the cage door. Particle III unfolds its three wings and flutters away. Luckily, Friedemann Sinzig has tears in his eyes, so he cannot see how particles spin against the concrete wall of the reactor tower and crash.

It is wonderfully quiet at the cooling-off pool. The water glows blue, only a little splashing can be heard. We’re amazed when we see a swimmer in a red RWE bathing cap swimming his laps. “I’ve always wanted to do that,” sighs long-time nuclear technician Dirk Hoppenstedt as he climbs out of the pool. “When, if not now? degrees the temperature is down to 38 degrees. Once the rocked-down fuel rods get in here, we’d be cooking eggs while splashing about.”

But isn’t that forbidden? we ask, aghast. “Clear. But what are they going to do? Fire me?” He laughs bitterly, having received his notice a long time ago. “With the last fuel rods in, the cooling pond is full like a nuclear howitzer. Heaven knows where they want to go with all that scrap. But that’s finally no longer my problem.”

Lifeguard for irradiated people

Next week he will start as a lifeguard at the outdoor pool in Lingen. “I love water. And there are plenty of people exposed to radiation there too.” He proudly shows us another castor container in the corner of the hall. “Has a crack, it’s coming to my house, so I’ll build a garden sauna in it!”

Back in the control room: A lady in a business suit storms towards us: “Sylvia von Zitzewitz, real estate agent. I was just talking to Mr. Stramm about the subsequent use of this exciting property. They will be wonderful lofts!” You can ask for a good distance for the pool. “Tell me: does this nuclear power plant actually have an energy certificate?” Stramm shrugs his shoulders, and the realtor busily murmurs: “The first group is coming to visit soon.”

Are there any plans for the site? “The community wanted to set up wind turbines,” says Stramm. “Of course we disagreed. Because of the disco effect. Unthinkable, such a mill breaks down and a rotor falls on the interim storage facility, that would be a disaster! So much for the supposed safety of wind power!”

Wistfully, Stramm takes a last look around the control room. His fingers are still fiddling with the broken off switch. “I think I’ll send it to Robert Habeck as a souvenir.” Stramm sighs. Then he stops just before the Christian Lindner icon. “Failure,” he hisses softly and blows out the candle. Two punches are needed on the light switch, then the last sparkle is extinguished.

The truth on

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