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Germany: Nuclear Scandal Puts Pressure On Government

Bonn, 25 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A scandal over radiation leaks from nuclear waste in Germany has put new pressure on Chancellor Helmut Kohl in his troubled campaign for re-election.

The dispute concerns spent nuclear fuel rods from German nuclear power stations. Since the beginning of the 1980's they have been taken by train across Germany to recycling stations in France and Britain. It was disclosed late last week that some of the containers holding the rods have emitted radiation higher than permitted despite repeated Government statements over the years that there were no problems..

In a wave of hostile statements over the weekend, opposition politicians claimed that environment minister Angela Merkel was at least guilty of negligence and should resign. Demonstrations by anti-nuclear campaigners went much further: many of the protesters carried banners suggesting that the minister may have known about the radiation but did not publicize the problem.

Nuclear power industry has acknowledged that it has known since the mid-1980's about radiation from some of the containers but did not publicize their knowledge.

Anything to do with nuclear radiation is an emotive issue in Germany, which has had a deep-seated fear of nuclear accidents since the Chernobyl disaster. Any indication that the Government kept information from the voters could rebound against Kohl and his Christian Democratic Party (CDU).

Polls taken just before the scandal broke last week showed the CDU and Kohl personally about 10 per cent behind the Social Democrats and their Chancellor candidate Gerhard Schroeder.

The transport of the spent nuclear fuel rods has become an emotive issue in Germany in recent years. Each transport has been accompanied by massive protests by anti-nuclear campaigners. At times, up to 7,000 police were deployed to ensure that the transports got through.

All these incidents have taken place during the 16 years that Kohl has been in power. Each time the Government has declared that the transport of the spent nuclear fuel rods across the country was perfectly safe and there was no danger to anyone.

A senior official of the nuclear power industry, Eberhard Wild, insisted last night that this is indeed true. The public was not in danger of radiation contamination from the transports. But that is no longer the issue. The question now is whether the government knew that there were in fact radiation leaks and did they conceal this fact from the public.

All the facts are not likely to emerge until a report is submitted to the environmental committee of the federal parliament this week (May 27).

There has been as yet no definite information on how many transports had been found with radiation levels higher than the permitted level. Some Bavarian officials say that of the 180 transports which left Bavaria between 1980-1997 only six were found to be contaminated. Some reports say 11 radiation leaks were found in the 55 transports sent to France last year. These reports say two leaks have been found this year.

The Minister, Ms. Merkel, says she first learned in April that the radiation emerging from the transports was higher than allowed. The report came from France after French technicians checked a transport from Germany. But the German nuclear power industry says that French technicians first noticed the higher radiation in the 1980's. The technicians did not believe the levels posed a danger and so the information was not made public. On the other hand, environmental campaigners have claimed for years that the radiation levels were high and made their claims public in their own media.

Spokesmen for the German nuclear power industry continued to insist last night that no danger existed but said they had underestimated the political sensitivity of the issue.

Scientists say it is inevitable that the containers holding the spent fuel rods become contaminated. The contamination includes the isotopes Casium 137 and Cobalt 60. They are "washed down" afterwards to remove the contamination but the scientists acknowledge that in some cases a certain degree of contamination remains.

The German press say the question of how many of the hundreds of containers emitted more radiation than permitted could be a key issue in the parliamentary debate.

Minister Merkel insisted repeatedly at the weekend that she saw no reason to accept political responsibility and resign. She said she had not known of the emissions and therefore could not be held responsible. In turn, she attacked the German nuclear power industry and its officials and said they should take responsibility. She has called for the dismissal of some power officials but so far the industry has brushed aside her demands.