Peter Klimmek has spent his entire career at a nuclear plant in Germany. Next year, he will retire – just months before his workplace does.
The nuclear plant in the small and remote village of Wuergassen, halfway between Frankfurt and Hamburg, has been Klimmek's passion for the past 37 years.
But by 2014, almost nothing will be left of what once was Germany's first commercial boiling water reactor. Germany's decision to shut down all nuclear plants by 2022, sparked by last year's Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, is a done deal.
"It gets under your skin to see how this plant is being dismantled," 63-year old Klimmek says, just steps away from a giant hole in the ground where the reactor vessel used to be.
Work to decommission plants mainly includes removing and disposing of contaminated material as well as decommissioning the plants themselves while making sure that no radiation spreads.
Spent fuel from reactors needs to be encased and then transported to safe fuel dumps while cooling towers, often regarded a blight on landscapes, then need demolishing.
"All that will be left are photos, footage but otherwise just empty hands," he adds, surrounded by workers in orange suits that are busy removing parts of the plant.
Klimmek joined the nuclear plant in the small village of Wuergassen in 1975, when public resistance against nuclear power was just starting to gain momentum in Germany.
Today, the four operators of nuclear plants in Germany - E.ON, RWE, EnBW and Vattenfall - have made a total of more than €30 billion ($36.7 billion) in provisions for the dismantling of the plants and the disposal of nuclear waste.
Germany's No.2 utility RWE estimates that dismantling its two reactors at Biblis will cost €1.5 billion, excluding storage costs for the nuclear waste.
E.ON, the country's largest utility, sees costs of €1.1 billion per plant for both dismantling and the disposal of radioactive material.
Men at work
But estimates for the total costs of dismantling all nuclear plants in Germany differ widely due to the complex nature of the process, with Greenpeace expecting at least €44 billion, while consultancy Arthur D. Little has put the total costs at no less than €18 billion.
However, a year after Fukushima, nearly 50 countries continue to run and build nuclear power plants, but extra risk control measures imposed in the wake of the disaster are increasing the cost of operating them.
In March, the World Nuclear Association estimated US operators are expecting to spend an additional $1 million per reactor to account for additional post-Fukushima safety arrangements.
After the accident, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium decided to move away from nuclear power altogether to grow reliance on renewable energy instead.
For those who have chosen to abandon their nuclear programmes, utilities will not be able to do all the dismantling work themselves, so specialised players may be best placed to benefit from the need to dismantle, a process that is expected to last for decades.
France's Areva, Westinghouse Electric Company LLC – jointly owned by Japan's Toshiba, US engineering company Shaw Group and IHI Corp – and Germany's Nukem Technologies, could all satisfy the need for growing expertise in the field.
"It is clear to us that more work will be coming on the market," said Ulf Kutscher, chief executive of Nukem Technologies, part of Russian state-owned nuclear company Rosatom.
The company specialises in the disposal of nuclear waste as well as the decommissioning of nuclear plants and has experience in several European countries, including France, where it is helping with the dismantling of the nuclear power plant in Brennilis.
"But we do not know how much work will ultimately be done by the utilities themselves. I could imagine that they will do a good deal of the dismantling," Kutscher said.
RWE, for example, has in the past signalled it may offer such services.
Among other tasks, Germany's Energiewerke Nord GmbH (EWN) plans and carries out large dismantling projects, including the remote decommissioning of strongly contaminated parts such as the reactor vessel.
"As long as the nuclear fuels remain in the plants, the dismantling process cannot start," EWN managing director Juergen Ramthun said, adding it could take 5-7 years until all fuel elements have been removed and the plant is ready for dismantling.
Entombment vs dismantling
Dismantling a nuclear plant until it has completely vanished can take several decades, depending on which technique is used.
So-called nuclear entombment aims to seal off some radioactive material for decades to let radiation levels decline, therefore making the process of dismantling easier at a later stage.
Using this technique, the process of fully decommissioning a plant can take more than 40 years, much longer than the process of direct dismantling, which usually takes about 10-12 years.
E.ON, operator of the Wuergassen plant, has said dismantling that plant alone will cost €700 million.
"We have decided to choose the process of direct dismantling," said E.ON spokeswoman Petra Uhlmann.
With a volume of about 423,000 tonnes, 5,000 of which are nuclear waste, Wuergassen plant's weight is on par with that of roughly 800 Airbus A380 planes.
After being decontaminated, parts of the plant can be recycled. For example, the two cooling towers of the plant – once overtopping the village – were later used to help build a skating rink in the nearby town of Beverungen.
"There are 640 rooms that all need to be approved before they can be broken down. That's equal to 140,000 square metres," Klimmek said, walking through a labyrinth of abandoned and run-down hallways that lead to the former control room.
After most of the control panels have been removed, the room has the charm of a 1970s office complex rather than that of the plant's nerve centre.
Outside the giant block of concrete, birds are singing and flowers are in full bloom. Few would guess that this used to be a nuclear power plant.
A few months after Klimmek's retirement, the last piece of the plant will be gone.
This article was originally published by Reuters. Republished with permission.