An hour north of Berlin, in the middle of a German nature reserve, a narrow smokestack rises into the air from a defunct nuclear power plant.
The Rheinsberg Nuclear Power Plant, which came online in 1966, was the first of its kind built in East Germany. Inside, there’s a mint-green room with huge control panels.
Jörg Möller, an engineer, recently showed me around. “Everyone’s jaw drops when they come in here,” he says. “It is very impressive.”
Fifty years ago, this room was cutting edge. But it’s started to look a little old-fashioned. “Today, you could probably manage all the complex processes in this control room with just a mouse and a screen,” Möller says.
Ten years ago, engineers finally removed the Rheinsberg reactor. They wrapped the radioactive material in a protective sleeve, and they lowered the whole thing onto a huge train car. Today, it sits in a temporary storage facility in the city of Greifswald.
That’s the problem with nuclear waste. No one really knows what to do with it. “Every ton we’ve dismantled and stored is still a burden,” Möller says. He thinks nuclear energy might still have a future in Europe — if scientists find better solutions for the waste.
At the end of our tour, Möller takes me outside, where a sign reads “radioactive control area.” It looks like a messy construction site, with huge heaps of soil and a giant white sheet. Engineers here still have to play it safe. “We’re now taking apart the storage buildings,” he says.
It only took two generations for nuclear energy to rise and fall in Germany. After the meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, Germany sped up its plans to close all its nuclear power plants. That’s supposed to happen in the next six years.
As Germany moves ahead with its nuclear phaseout, it could learn a useful lesson from Rheinsberg — that the legacy of nuclear energy will be felt for decades to come.
Read more and listen to the program at A glimpse inside a defunct East German nuclear plant — and what it says about the future of energy in Europe