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No. 055/11 | Berlin, 26.04.2011

25 years ago: nuclear disaster in Chernobyl

Federal Environment Minister Röttgen: The horrifying images are still fresh in our memory

On 26 April 1986 an explosion shook unit 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. This nuclear disaster had far reaching and long-term impacts on health, environment and economy, posing great problems for the Soviet Union and subsequently for Russia, Belarus and in particular Ukraine. Vast regions are still contaminated today. A 30km zone around the nuclear power plant is still designated a restricted area. "The upsetting images of radiation victims, refugees and abandoned neighbourhoods have been etched on our memories", said Federal Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen. "This nuclear accident has caused immeasurable suffering. Children not even born today will still have to bear the consequences."

In contrast to the situation in Japan, which was the consequence of a natural disaster, the nuclear catastrophe in Chernobyl was caused by human error. Failures in design and operation led to a meltdown and an explosion within the reactor core and the ensuing graphite fire, which lasted several days. Federal Environment Minister Röttgen commented: "Mistakes, negligence or even wilful intent can never be entirely ruled out where human beings are involved. The human factor is one aspect of the residual risk and must therefore be incorporated into the current new assessment of safety measures in the same way as, for example, earthquakes, floods, power failures and plane crashes."

Mr Röttgen added that the disastrous consequences of the nuclear accident in Fukushima showed more plainly than ever that environmental policies must include safety policy. We must pursue a policy which takes responsibility for the future, bearing in mind our children and grandchildren. The Federal Environment Minister noted: "If we combine ethical conduct with economic competence, we will achieve a different, safe and growth-oriented energy policy which saves resources. This is why, even before the accident in Fukushima, the German government advocated a switch to alternative energy sources as a morally, ecologically and economically superior energy supply option. Within this concept nuclear power only plays the role of a bridging technology to the age of renewable energies. Mr Röttgen added: "In light of what happened in Japan we now have to implement the agreements of the Energy Concept even more swiftly and stringently. In particular, we need to make even better use of energy efficiency potential, expand new technologies for energy supply and further reduce the demand for electricity and energy." The Federal Environment Minister wants a discussion between the broad public, churches, labour unions, companies and the scientific community which goes beyond the interests of political parties. This is the first opportunity in decades to find consensus on energy policy.

Together with international partners Germany continues to support various measures for the safe containment of the destroyed unit 4 which aim to facilitate dismantling at a later point. The achievements and improvements of the past years are considerable:

  • International exchange and practical cooperation in safety issues have been intensified.
  • Occupational and environmental safety at the site have significantly improved.
  • Agreement has been reached on a safety concept for the damaged unit 4.
  • The problem of the unstable sarcophagus has been solved for the medium term.
  • The remaining units 1 to 3 have been permanently shut down. Decommissioning has begun.
  • A licensable concept has been drawn up for the safe long-term interim storage of spent RBMK fuel elements, which is a significant improvement in nuclear safety compared to the previous situation.

The establishment of the Federal Environment Ministry in Germany in 1986 was a reaction to the new environmental challenges posed by the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl. This concentrated environmental responsibilities which were previously spread across a number of ministries within the competence of a single ministry.

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