A year ago the Neckarwestheim nuclear power plant was closed. One third of the plant and most of the radioactive waste are located in Gemmrigheim (Ludwigsburg district). And now we have to save.

Two supermarkets, a drugstore, two bakeries, two butcher shops, two doctors, two dentists. There are also two sports halls, a festival hall and a winery for events. For a city with less than 5,000 inhabitants, Gemmrigheim offers a lot to its inhabitants. But since a year ago, the perfect image and wealth have begun to crumble. The Neckarwestheim nuclear power plant has no longer produced electricity since April 15, 2023. It was the last closed nuclear power plant in Baden-Württemberg and, together with Emsland in Lower Saxony and Isar 2 in Lower Bavaria, the last in Germany .

Dismantling takes up to 15 years.

But what does the Neckarwestheim nuclear power plant have to do with Gemmrigheim? – The answer is simple: the plant is located between both places, surrounded by potato fields. And about a third of the nuclear power plant, which everyone here simply calls GKN (community nuclear power plant), is located in the Gemmrigheim district. This means that the Ludwigsburg district community has benefited greatly economically from nuclear energy in the past, through commercial tax revenues, until today. Because at the nuclear power plant there are still many people working on its dismantling, which will take up to 15 years.

With just a few days left until the closing anniversary, the place is being spruced up. City employees use leaf blowers to remove leaves from sidewalks and plant flowers. Everything seems calm: children cross the street on bicycles and, a few meters from the nuclear power plant, older people sit in the sun on picnic benches.

The nuclear power plant parking lot is half full. According to the license plates, most of the employees come from the immediate area: Heilbronn, Ludwigsburg, some from Mosbach.

At 2 in the morning there were roasted onions at the nuclear power plant.

Klaus Thiele was able to walk to the nuclear power plant: two kilometers there and two kilometers back. “I never went to work reluctantly,” says this telecommunications technician who worked in the control center of the nuclear power plant. There were parties, company outings lasting several days, and a dining room “that didn't have to be hidden behind any restaurant,” according to him. At 2 a.m. you could still order grilled onion with spaetzle, freshly prepared for shift workers like him.

From 1986 to 2018, Klaus Thiele worked for EnBW at the nuclear power plant for 32 years and then semi-retired. He says he was never afraid of radiation or a reactor accident. Even in 2011, when a nuclear disaster occurred in Fukushima due to a strong tsunami, this did not bother him. He considered it unnecessary that the first reactor block (GKN 1) in Neckarwestheim was closed very soon after the accident in Japan. He is still a fan of nuclear energy today: “The closure was a serious mistake.”

When he was a teenager, the mayor was against nuclear energy.

Jörg Frauhammer, born in 1964, is the independent mayor of Gemmrigheim. Like Klaus Thiele, he grew up in the city. But as a teenager he thought much more critically about nuclear energy. Although his father was one of the first to work at GKN in the 1970s, Frauhammer pasted anti-nuclear stickers on the window panes of his house. “It was a delicate situation,” he says today. “I was against nuclear energy because everyone was against it.”

When he realized that his father made a lot of money, did not get sick often, and was happy with his job, his attitude changed. While studying chemical engineering, he completed an eight-week internship at GKN. Later his wife worked there, as did friends and neighbors. The mayor was in favor of allowing the nuclear plant to continue operating until the existing fuel rods are used up. That's how most people in the city see it, he says. Those who live in Gemmrigheim or Neckarwestheim are not afraid of nuclear energy and have adapted to the plant: “People have lived from it and with it.”

What differentiates Jörg Frauhammer from Klaus Thiele: the mayor has always had a critical attitude “towards what is left there”, that is, towards radioactive waste. He emphasizes: For the people who live where the final repository will one day be built, the atomic age has not ended, and will not end for many thousands of years. And since they are expected to store their waste temporarily until at least 2050, the problem is not over for him either. The temporary warehouse where the wheels with radioactive waste are transported is located entirely in the Gemmrigheim district.

The community fought until the administrative court to prevent the temporary warehouse from being installed in its facilities, without success. Now Jörg Frauhammer wants at least “some recognition” for the fact that they have not only “carried the burden of production” for 50 years, but now also “have the brilliant material just around the corner.” By “certain appreciation” he means above all money.

Suddenly, money becomes a problem in Gemmrigheim.

Because in Gemmrigheim there is something completely new for its inhabitants: the community has to save money. Even before the nuclear power plant was built in the former quarry among the potato fields, the city's economy was flourishing. Until 2008 there was a large paper factory. For decades, large sums of business taxes flowed into the municipal treasury. Money was never a problem. Until now.

The mayor says the local school, which is more than 50 years old, needs a complete renovation. Although the municipality still has more than ten million euros in reserves, the renovation would consume the reserves. So they decided against it and instead built a new, but smaller, school. “This generates unrest among the population.”

Klaus Thiele thinks of another example: when the nuclear power plant was still in operation, the community gave all residents of Gemmrigheim a free annual pass to four swimming pools in the area. In addition, there was a free bus every week: sometimes to the indoor pool in Bietigheim-Bissingen, sometimes to the spa in Ludwigsburg-Hoheneck. Now only children receive the free annual pool pass. The buses no longer run.

Dismantling of GKN 2 has already begun

When the nuclear power plant was closed a year ago, some people in the city felt sad, says Jörg Frauhammer. Finally, the white cloud of water vapor could be seen from all directions and suddenly, there was nothing there anymore.

Dismantling of the GKN 2 reactor, which was closed a year ago, has already begun. The oldest reactor has been dismantled since 2017. The pressure vessel has already been dismantled and work on the nacelle is also practically completed. EnBW now assumes total costs of ten billion euros for the decommissioning of the five reactors in Baden-Württemberg.

Waiting for an accomplished physique

And while both Jörg Frauhammer and Environment Minister Thekla Walker (Greens) are concerned about the nuclear legacy, former employee Klaus Thiele is confident: on the one hand, the Neckarwestheim wheels are located in a former quarry and are not in ships, he says. . The fact that the Beavers are six to eight meters below the level of the Neckar gives it security. He also believes in technology: “Maybe in 50, 100 or 200 years a physicist will find a solution to make radioactive substances harmless,” he says.

By Julia Bosch