Under Control

The movie “Unter Kontrolle” examines the decline of nuclear energy in Germany due to safety scares and a decrease in public opinion.

Before delving into the technical aspects of the reactors, the narrator walks us through a little bit of history. In choosing the location, water proximity came up as an important issue. That is why, Grohnde in the Municipality of Emmerthal, the installation that is the subject of the movie, was chosen when they were planning the installation in the 1970s. It is close to a river called Weser.

The size of the nuclear installations is mind-boggling. Bird’s-eye views of the installations make humans seem like ants roaming around the reactors. Throughout the movie, I wondered how many people were needed to operate the facilities, which I believe span one acre. Maintenance also seemed like a challenge. At one point during the movie, you can hear a technician tell his colleagues: “I can’t manage this with my fingers”, as they performed maintenance on one of the reactors.

“Unter Kontrolle” also stresses safety. Shots around the location seem to suggest that it is indeed safe. The movie shows passersby on their bike seemingly enjoying a stroll on a road just a few meters away from the installation. The narrator explained that the Grohnde installation requires four of everything to ensure safety although only one would. They also seemed to have taken into account different scenarios to ensure safety. For instance, one of the tour guides described how they would activate a smokescreen should a plane be heading in their direction in a threatening manner.

In addition to these procedures, Grohnde possesses a sophisticated and mammoth alarm system, called a Reactor Safety Board (RSB). The RSB would alert operators of any potential safety concerns to help determine whether to trip the reactor and eventually shut the system down to stop nuclear heat generation. In terms of the monitoring systems, the installation seems to have few staff working in the center for what seems to be a monumental undertaking. It makes one wonder how they keep track of everything especially when several alarms go off. A simulation at the end of the movie is especially telling in that sense.

“Unter Kontrolle” mixes the technical and political aspects of the nuclear issue quite well. It provides an extensive tour of the nuclear installations, shows how the reactors work, presents safety mechanisms in place, and, towards the end, moves on to interviews with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials who talk about the types of information they use to monitor the amount of nuclear materials in countries that use it. This involves the testing of a number of different issues. For instance, IAEA keeps a database in which it registers all incidents of illegal handling of nuclear and radioactive materials, to include uranium and plutonium as well as medical radiation sources such as cobalt, cesium, and iridium.

Discussions on IAEA mandate also proved interesting. Due to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the agency is able to check installations of countries that do not have nuclear weapons or installations of countries with nuclear weapons on a voluntary basis. They have little or no recourse for countries that are not party to the NPT.

Overall, the movie was neutral although there was a hint of nostalgia towards the end among those who believed in the promise of nuclear energy but have been seeing a decline in its prestige over the last few decades. It was also interesting to discover the substantial engineering challenges of both building and maintaining such facilities. At the end, one of the narrators mentioned that one of the abandoned plants cost nine billion Deutsche marks to construct! It makes one wonder how that translated into economic and environmental benefits, which “Unter Kontrolle” does not really detail. — H. T.