Germany had always been at the forefront of Nuclear Research with Otto Hahn and his assistant Fritz Straßmann being the first to discover Nuclear Fission on the 17th of December 1938. After the second world war, many of Germanys nuclear scientists were “drafted” into the service of the US and the Soviet Union, only returning back to Germany years later.
Both East and West Germany were quick to adopt nuclear programs of their own and attempted cover large portions of the electricity needs with the newfound technology. We had a chance to have a look inside the largest Nuclear Power Plant to be have operated in East Germany – the Kernkraftwerk Greifswald.
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The German Democratic Republic enters the Nuclear age
1955 was a pivotal year for the German Democratic Republic. The hammer and compass surrounded by a ring of rye was adopted as the GDR’s national emblem (more about the last surviving emblems of the GDR can be found here) and East Germany joined the Warsaw Pact as a founding member. More importantly, the Soviet Union officially ended its state of war against the GDR by signing a friendship treaty, dissolving its High Commission and handing over full sovereignty to the German Democratic Republic (at least on paper).
This milestone in normalized relations opened the door for East Germany to start up their nuclear research program again, as the allies had forbidden “all of Germany” to conduct any nuclear research after the end of the second world war. Of course, the Soviet Union, which had previously siphoned off equipment, research materials and scientists after the end of the War, now began assisting the young country in starting up its own (Soviet dominated) nuclear program.
East Germany started pickup up pace and created a scientific council for the peaceful use of atomic energy, the ministry for nuclear research and technology, as well as introducing the faculty for nuclear technology at several of East Germanies universities.
With the assistance of the Soviet Union, the GDR unveiled its first nuclear research reactor in Rossendorf (next to Dresden) in 1957, a mere 2 months after its West German counterpart in Munich.
From Coal to Nuclear Energy
By June 1956, the German Democratic Republic and the Soviet Union signed an agreement that the Soviet Union would assist its satellite state with the construction of its first (commercial) Nuclear Power Plant. Modernising its outdated energy facilities was of critical importance to East Germany. The country – thanks to the division after the war – had very little natural resources, and the coal deposits in the Ruhr and the former eastern territories (once served by the Preussag) which had previously filled two thirds of Germanys energy needs were now off limits.
What East Germany had though were very large Uranium and Brown Coal deposits. Brown Coal was the main energy source for East Germany, with over 300 million tons of it being extracted from the earth. Massive lignite power plants sprung up all over the country to power the factories and to provide electricity for the people.
This had substantial drawbacks though as the resources were limited, the electricity production was inefficient, and the coal mining costs rose year by year. Alongside this came the massive environmental tole of the mining and the pollution by the coal power plants. By the mid 1970s to 1980s, the GDR had the highest sulfur dioxide per capita output in Europe, as well as the highest carbon dioxide output per capita in the entire world. Entire swaths of the country were permanently doused in a a cloud of pollution, like the town of Rüdersdorf outside of Berlin which was home to a rather large and now abandoned Chemical Factory.
While brown coal related pollution wasn’t a concern for the State Council of the the GDR, they were far more worried about the effects that the winter had on the coal. Coal contains a certain amount of water (and it attracts it as well), so when the temperatures drop below zero there is a real chance that the coal freezes over making it unusable for the power plants. This actually happened more frequently than the GDR liked to admit during the winter months – and in a particular harsh winter of 1978, the Kernkraftwerk Greifswald was the only Power Plant in East Germany to run at full capacity.
The GDR was convinced that Nuclear Energy was the way forward and thanks to the fact that it had the largest uranium deposit in all of Europe, it seemed like the cheapest and safest way forward. The Soviets and the East Germans created the SDAG Wismut (Soviet-German joint stock company Wismut) to mine the uranium. The company was so productive that it was actually the third largest uranium producer by 1991. Not that the GDR really saw much of this as the Soviet Union decided claim a large bulk of the uranium to fuel its own nuclear program.
The Kernkraftwerk Nord – Kernkraftwerk Greifswald
East Germanys first commercial Nuclear Power Plant – the Kernkraftwerk Rheinsberg – was officially opened on the 9th of May 1966 – just 90 kilometers north of Berlin. The Socialists, never missing a good symbolic date chose the 9th of May on purpose as it was the “Victory over Fascism”. The Kernkraftwerk Rheinsberg officially had a production capacity of 70 Megawatt, though it would only reach this production level at the end of the month due to technical problems. In comparison, the first West German Reactor went online the same year but had a capacity of 250 Megawatts.
Even before the KKR was completed – the GDR and the Soviets signed another agreement in 1965 for the construction of a larger, much more powerful and ambitious Nuclear Power Plant – initially known as the Kernkraftwerk Nord. The agreement between the German Democratic Republic and the Soviet Union meant that the Soviet Union would deliver the technical design, reactors, turbo aggregates and all the other essential core equipment along with ensuring that the Nuclear Plant would actually run. The GDR would be responsible for the construction, ventilation and control technology, fittings and the auxiliary systems.
The initial agreement between the GDR and the Soviets saw the construction of Nord I which consisted of 2 440MW reactors. The agreement was expanded in 1969, which sought to up the output of the Kernkraftwerk Nord to 5000 megawatts by 1980, so another reactor block – Nord II – was commissioned. The SED Politbüro decided in 1973 to yet again expand the plant with Nord III and Nord IV, meaning that by 1981, the Power Plant would have 8 reactors in total. The GDR was so eager to expand its nuclear capabilities, and placed so much trust (faith) in the Soviets, that they signed the contracts before the Soviets had even fully tested the new reactors themselves.
The GDR sought to import the Nuclear Technology from the Soviets (a decision they would later deeply regret) as they wanted to hit the ground running rather than delay the construction of further plants due to much needed domestic research and development. On the other hand, the deal between the East Germans and the Soviets was a novelty for both parties and would serve as a blue print for the other Communist countries (such as Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia – and Finnland) which would soon benefit from the same Soviet Nuclear exports.
While the GDR agreed on the construction of a new nuclear plant by 1965, but they hadn’t picked out a suitable spot for it yet. After surveying over 42 different locations, they ultimately settled on a coastal area in the Lubminer Heide in the Greifswalder Bodden. There were seemingly many good reasons for this location: The northern region of East Germany was particularly devoid of coal (and power plants) so having a nuclear power plant would cut the need for long and costly coal transports.
The Lubminner Heide also didn’t consist of valuable agricultural land so they didn’t need to make any sacrifices on that front either. Being situated directly at the coast was especially appealing as the Kernkraftwerk Nord (aka Kernkraftwerk Greifswald) would profit from plenty of (low concentrated salt) water necessary for the cooling process, as well as Southwest and Westerly winds which – in the case of a nuclear accident – would blow the fallout out to sea.
The potential warming of the Ocean (the Kernkraftwerk Greifswald would channel off warm water after cycling it through the system) was sold as a positive effect, as the water would be warmer for the beach going tourists as well as being the perfect environment for fish farms. Years later, it would turn the Nuclear Power Plant didn’t only eject warm water (which caused the water temperature to rise by 3 degrees instead of 1 degree) but also oil and radioactivity. The salt water also proved to be a curse in the long run as it rapidly corroded the expensive equipment.
Interestingly enough, the FDJ (Free German Youth) had a holiday camp “Felix Edmundowitsch Dzierzynski” – for the children of Stasi Officers directly in Zone 1 of the exclusion zone. In the case of an emergency, the camp had no iodine tables or physical shelters for the Staff or the Children. The administration of the East German radiation protection office wasn’t aware of the camp until 1987, and then immediately lodged a complaint to the Head of the State Security. While no immediate action was taken, it was planned to close down the Camp by 1994.
Kernkraftwerk Greifswald – The German Tschernobyl
Construction of the Kernkraftwerk Nord began in 1969 and lasted a comparatively short 4 years. During the construction phase, the Kernkraftwerk Nord underwent some organizational changes. In 1971 it was renamed VEB Kernkraftwerke Greifswald-Rheinsberg, and then later renamed again to VEB Kernkraftwerk Greifswald. In 1973 – a year before the reactors went into continuous operation, it was renamed again to VEB Kernkraftwerk “Bruno Leuschner” Greifswald – after a former member of the Central Committee and head of the State Planning commission (which was also paper responsible for Nuclear Research and Energy) who had died in 1965.
Reactor 1 of Nord I went critical for the first time on the 3rd of December 1973, though the engineers managed to regain control. Ironically, the Soviet chief project engineer refused to give any guarantees over the operability of Nord I in May of 1973, as according to him none of the vital elements of the Kernkraftwerk Greifswald were complete, the status of the construction site was a mess (the Soviets had explicitly said they wanted it to be clinically clean), and the East German engineers ignored recommendations and comments from the soviet experts. And to top it all off, the construction was sloppy and one of the steam generators had to be replaced du to extensive corrosion.
Despite the Stasi recording that several hundred minor defects still needed to be fixed, Reactor 1 went into full commercial operation in July 1974. It didn’t help that while the German technicians had extensive theoretical knowledge, they had virtually no practical knowledge. In addition to this, several circuit diagrams had been corrected, but the operating manuals weren’t updated with these corrections meaning that the technicians had to operate the Power Plant blind. The Stasi noted over 100 accidents in the first year of operation alone. Nord I was completed on the 23rd of December 1974 and Reactor 2 went officially online.
The first major incident occurred in the spring of 1975 when some equipment which was responsible for controlling the chain reactions in the reactor proved to be faulty and continuously emitted radioactive material into the primary loop. The reactor had to be shut down for 200 days before the problem was fixed.
The most serious nuclear accident occurred in the same year. On the 7th of December 1975, a massive cable fire broke out in one of the engine rooms. A 27-year-old engineer had wanted to show a colleague how to bridge electrical circuits, but rather than using the specialized equipment he used a pair of flat nosed pliers causing the system to short circuit. 130 kilometers worth of cables went up in flames, shutting down the Reactor 1 along with its cooling systems and other emergency systems. The reactor shut down automatically, but the remaining heat had nowhere to go. The pressure in Reactor 1 rose to such a crucial extent that a security valve started spewing radioactive steam into the primary loop.
A Security valve jammed during this process and the water level in the opened primary loop began to reach critical levels. Only with the aid of a hammer did technicians manage to close the security valve. Ironically, the Soviet manufacturer had warned the East Germans about the valves and recommended they be replaced with a West German counterpart – which never happened. Thanks to the Soviet Design – which incorporated a very generous amount of cooling water – (and a hammer) did the East Germans manage to avoid a major nuclear accident. It took a year for Reactor 1 to go back online, though reactor 2 was back online only weeks after the initial accident.
The accident unraveled a series of embarrassing truths – from technicians not sticking to protocols, to the lack of specialized equipment leading to improvisations, to faulty emergency systems. The entire accident escalated so chaotically because a single diode was installed incorrectly in one of the transformers of the emergency system. And yet again, this system was installed by the East Germans and not the Soviets (who knew this type of system was unreliable and had banned it in the Soviet Union).
Sadly, the problems in the Kernkraftwerk Greifswald continued. Reactor 1 received a general overhaul in 1982, and upon reactivation an increased level of radiation (15 times the allowed amount) was measured in the secondary loop. The reactor was shut down immediately and upon closer inspection, the technicians found over 100 faulty steam generator tubes. Soviet and East German technicians analyzed the root cause and found out that Copper and Chloride particles were causing deposits in the tubes, which was only enhanced by cool water that consisted of the wrong chemical makeup. The corrosion was made worse by oxygen in the tubes which was allowed to enter due to the constant shut downs.
Both the East Germans and the Soviets came to different conclusions after the inspections. The East Germans referred to the non-compliance of standard operating procedures, blamed the faulty soviet technology as well as the missing technology to accurately detect issues. The Soviets mainly placed the fault in the hands of the Power Plant personnel. The problems escalated to such a point that even the Soviet Ambassador Pjotr Andrejewitsch Abrassimow wrote a letter to Erich Honecker with the recommendations of the Soviet Technicians. It should also be noted that Ambassador Abrassimow was deeply unpopular in East German political circles due to his autocratic nature. After an intervention by Honecker in Moscow in 1982, Abrassimow was recalled from his post in Berlin.
In 1989, a NVA Fighter Jet flew off course and breached the 2km no fly zone of the Kernkraftwerk Greifswald at an altitude of only 300 meters. While the pilot was reprimanded, the incident itself was played down. It’s worth noting that the Nuclear Power Plant had no outer casing to protect it from these types of incidents. If a plane would have crashed into the Plant, one can only imagine the explosion and subsequent nuclear fallout it would have caused.
Kernkraftwerk Greifswald shuts down for good
The expansions for the Kernkraftwerk Greifswald – Nord II – were planned for 1972, and should have been completed by 1978, but the Soviets pushed back the delivery dates for the reactors 3 and 4 to 1976 and 1977. Both the reactors of Nord II went online commercially by 1978 and 1979 – and the Kernkraftwerk Greifswald managed to supply roughly 10 percent of East Germany with its Nuclear Power. As for Nord III and Nord IV with their reactors 5 – 8 -they constituted a never-ending drama for the East German political elite. The reactors 5 through 8 were planned to be completed by 1983/85/86/87 but technical difficulties, defects, budgetary constraints and delivery issues on the end of the Soviets pushed back the operational dates further and further.
Reactor 5 was finally “completed” and started its operational test phase in the spring of 1989 – 6 years later than initially planned. By November 1989 it was shut down again due to a technical fault. The Kernkraftwerk Greifswald had turned into a never-ending money pit. While Nord I and Nord II cost 1,5 Billion and 1,8 Billion Mark (something along the lines of 153 Million and 184 Million euros today) the construction costs for the reactors ballooned up to 14 Billion Mark (that’s about a billion euros).
By late 1989, even the East German atomic safety agency noted that the technology in Greifswald was outdated and unsafe. They recommended that the Reactors 1-4 be shut down, and even the Reactors 5-8 would need a complete overhaul and modernization (ironically, they were outdated before they were completed). An overhaul of a single reactor to the current security standards would have cost the GDR 2 Billion Mark – and would have most likely shut down operations of the Kernkraftwerk Greifswald until the year 2000.
The West German TÜV inspected the Kernkraftwerk Greifswald in the early 1990, and concluded that the older four reactors had severe defects, while the newer reactors had a decent chance of being upgraded to comply with international safety standards. Based on the overwhelming evidence that the KKG wasn’t up to international standards and a safety hazard, The East German Government shut down reactors 2 and 3 by February 1990. In early October 1990 – after the GDR had officially unified with West Germany – Chancellor Kohl made a statement that the Kernkraftwerk Greifswald did not meet any of the current safety standards and would be shut down imminently (just like the four other East German Nuclear Power Plants).
After the German unification, the Kernkraftwerk Greifswald was transformed into the Energiewerke Nord AG, and then into the Energiewerke Nord GmbH bei the infamous Treuhandanstallt. Reactor 5 was shut down in early 1991 due to the lack of safety concepts and no company being interested in undertaking the needed modernizations. By 1995, the Energiewerke Nord decided to completely shut down the former Kernkraftwerk Greifswald and start the dismantling process. Unused nuclear fuel from reactor 5 was sold to Hungary which proceeded to use it for Its Paks Nuclear Plant (which was of the same design as the Kernkraftwerk Greifswald).
Kernkraftwerk Greifswald today
After announcing the closure and dismantling process of the Kernkraftwerk Greifswald in 1995 – the entire process was estimated to cost 6 billion mark (3 billion euro) and be completed by 2012. By 2012, the Energiwerke Nord had decided to “save” costs by only removing certain structures while encasing others for 50 years until the Radionuclides had subsided. The main dismantling process should have been completed by 2015, but a new strategy was introduced again. The buildings that were originally supposed to remain for 50 years, were now to be demolish by 2028. And while all this was happening, the project costs ballooned up to 6 billion euros.
While all the dismantling work is going on, the Reactor 6 of the Kernkraftwerk Greifswald can be visited. Reactor 6 was close to being completed in 1990, but the order to shut down the plant came before it ever went online. No nuclear fuel was ever inserted, and thus visitors have the perfect opportunity to take deep look inside one of the last soviet made nuclear reactors in Germany. Tours are free, but require a prior registration (and apparently still operate during corona virus pandemic).
If one is ever in the area, or on the way to the Baltic coast – the Kernkraftwerk Greifswald is only a short detour away. The tours (while in German) are highly informative and done by former and current employees of the Nuclear Power Plant. And for those who are worried about Radiation exposure – they even offer to give you geiger counter to calm your nerves.
Visiting the Kernkraftwerk Greifswald
The EWN GmbH, which is in charge of decommissioning the Nuclear Power Plant, offers free tours through the reactor 6. To take part in one of these tours, you will need to either contact them via email or by phone. All contact details can be found on their contact page here. All tours (as far as I am aware) are held in German.
Important side note: Tours have been currently suspended due to the Corona-Virus pandemic. When they will resume isn’t clear, but I will update this section once they are available again.
Kernkraftwerk Greifswald Address
EWN Entsorgungswerk für Nuklearanlagen GmbH
Latzower Straße 1