Germany – Toad in the Hole

REPORTER: Chris Hammer

One of Europe’s major waterways – the Rhine River – and snuggled in next to it, the Philippsburg nuclear reactor.

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Members of the company yacht club clearly aren’t too concerned about any potential danger.

But a clear majority of Germans are opposed to nuclear, and six years ago the former government announced the country’s 17 power reactors would be shut by 2021.

Some members of that former government look at places like Philippsburg, open to the Rhine, and want to accelerate that phase-out.

REINHARD BUTIKOFER, GREENS LEADER: When we talked and fought the battle about phasing out nuclear, we had not yet seen international terrorism as we know it today. And every nuclear plant is a possible goal for terrorists. So can we really bear that risk? I’m not sure.

But a new political reality means any phase-out, let alone an early one, is now in doubt. Last November, conservative Angela Merkel became Chancellor, her Christian Democrats forming a so-called grand coalition with the Social Democrats – the German equivalent of John Howard going into coalition with Kim Beazley.

The Social Democrats remain implacably opposed to nuclear, but Merkel’s party wants to overthrow the policy.

JOACHIM PFEIFFER, CDU ENERGY SPOKESMAN: My party, the CDU/CSU, we think it is a mistake. We have the safest – and it’s proven – the safest nuclear power plants in the world, and they’re pretty new, and we want to prolong the duration of the nuclear power plants.

Walking into this approaching political storm is Klaus Henle as he retraces the steps he first took a quarter of a century ago as a young biology student – steps that took him to this quarry near the village of Rosswag in south-western Germany. They were steps that led him to discover what he now believes was the illegal dumping of nuclear waste.

DR KLAUS HENLE, BIOLOGIST: I would have been very, very happy to be shown to be incorrect. I would have been happy to find out that it’s something natural. But the evidence from the beginning was very strong against being something natural.

Klaus came to this quarry all those years ago because he was intrigued by the then novel idea that frogs and toads could act as early warning signs of environmental damage. The toads he found here changed if not his life, then at least the way he saw the world.

DR KLAUS HENLE: They lived in a large pond here in the quarry. And what struck us immediately was that quite a large number of the tadpoles showed unusual features. There were white tadpoles, giant tadpoles – what is not normal for the species.

Indeed, Klaus and his companion had stumbled upon a Pandora’s box of mutations. There were toads with extra legs and without legs. There were giant tadpoles, strangely coloured toads, and a multitude of tumours and unusual growths.

Klaus suspected a chemical pollutant, but decided to rule out radioactivity first. He borrowed a Geiger counter from his university’s physics department.

DR KLAUS HENLE: We were shocked because we found elevated levels of radioactivity at the cracks of the deposit of earth. The activity was slightly elevated all along the deposit, but that was not to be worried about. But whenever you get very close to opening of cracks, the activity increased dramatically.

REPORTER: How dramatically?

DR KLAUS HENLE: Up to 100 times background levels.

REPORTER: So no way it could have been a natural phenomenon?

DR KLAUS HENLE: Not really, it’s too high levels.

The authorities were contacted, there was a great show of official concern. But behind closed doors authorisation was quickly given to bury the evidence, quite literally. Within five days of Klaus and his friends notifying the authorities, all the water was pumped off the site and it was covered with metres of fill. But that didn’t stop the collection of specimens of the toads, nor did it stop other scientists from taking independent measurements of radioactivity. A quarter of a century on, those scientists no longer feel constrained from talking.

DR BARBARA STEINHILBER, ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENTIST: So we made our measurements and in our eyes there was radioactivity. But for scientific proof, for really profound scientific proof, you need more data.

Dr Barbara Steinhilber’s worked for an independent institute. Her readings were consistent with the presence of radioactivity. They caught the eye of an ambitious young politician from the fledgling Greens Party.

WOLF-DIETER HASENCLEVER: I smelled the chance to have publicity, of course, as politicians always like publicity.

Wolf-Dieter Hasenclever called a public meeting. The government declined to attend, but a number of eminent scientists did.

WOLF-DIETER HASENCLEVER: It was a success. It was very clear that something with radioactivity was happening, had happened there.

The clincher was the attendance of this man – Paris-based professor Alain Dubois, then and now the world’s leading authority on anomalies in amphibians. He declared the mutations could not have a natural cause.

PROFESSOR ALAIN DUBOIS, MUSEUM NALIONAL D’HISTOIRE NATURELLE: But one possible and very likely one was that these toads had been irradiated by some kind of waste that might have been deposited in the quarry. But at the time we had the hearing the quarry had been filled up with tonnes of earth.

With the story starting to gather traction, at least in the local media, the state government decided to hold its own hearings, with its own experts, here in this building in Stuttgart.

PROFESSOR ALAIN DUBOIS: Clearly not everybody was very happy to have this hearing. So the hearing was organised in such a way as each of the the experts had only a very limited time to speak, was asked only a few questions, and, above all, had no permission to speak again after his time has been elapsed.

DR KLAUS HENLE: Only the minister, which was under attack that something didn’t go wrong in his portfolio, he was the only person allowed to question everybody and to ask his experts to present their statements.

One scientist, invited by the government, declared the mutations were natural – the result of interbreeding between two species of toads. This was based on the recollection of an old lady, who claimed to have seen deformed frogs in the area 70 years before. The scientist was immediately awarded a generous multiyear grant to study this hybridisation theory.

DR BARBARA STEINHILBER: This was the point where I really gave up, because if science has come to this point, that an anecdote is the base of your conclusions, I think there was nothing more to do.

But for Klaus, the most devastating testimony came from his old physics professor, the man who had originally lent him the Geiger counter. He testified that Klaus had incorrectly used the instrument, and that when he himself had gone to the quarry, he was unable to detect elevated radioactivity.

REPORTER: So was it his evidence at the inquiry that really put an end to the inquiry?

DR KLAUS HENLE: It contributed, definitely, to the end of the inquiry.

Now Klaus and I have located the retired professor and drive to meet with him. He makes an astounding admission – that the instruments he used, and the way he used them, could never have detected buried radiation.

REPORTER: If there was a radioactive source under a metre or two of soil, would you have been able to measure it?

PROFESSOR SCHREIBER: No. 20 centimetres, it’s off. 20 centimetres of soil would make it impossible to measure from other side, the radioactivity.

DR KLAUS HENLE: For me, that was the one most interesting thing that he mentioned, that if there was radioactivity he couldn’t have detected it.

Klaus is now keen to revisit the events of 25 years ago, just at a time when the nuclear debate is set to reignite in Germany. He’s doing so because, as we shall see, he has now been able to scientifically establish radioactivity as the single most likely cause of the mutations. But first he wants to chase down some loose ends in Rosswag. The first is a quarry worker named Sanchez, who told him at the time that there were mysterious dumpings of material in the quarry late at night. We track him down, but he declines to cooperate. So we go down there, to the quarry, and search out the owner.

DR KLAUS HENLE, (Translation): Do you think it’s possible that without your knowledge, something was taken into the quarry?

HERR ZIMMERMAN, (Translation): That is impossible, nothing was dumped there. Ask the people who work in the ministry.

Eventually, Herr Zimmerman appears, denying all knowledge. So that’s what we do. Klaus confronts the authorities, armed with the information that Professor Schreiber would not have been able to detect buried radiation. But they stick to the official line, and the anecdote of the old lady.

DR OSKAR GROZINGER, STATE ENVIRONMENT DEPARTMENT: We know that this malformation was observed very, very early. An old lady told us that when she was a girl, in 1910, she observed all of these mutations, I think we have here a very special population. And this population of toads was surely, by many decades, abnormal.

DR KLAUS HENLE: That’s completely impossible because most of the mutations were little which means all the individuals that had them died before they reached majority, and could not reproduce, so the mutations cannot be passed on to the offspring. And so they get lost very, very rapidly from the population.

REPORTER: So it’s biological nonsense?

DR KLAUS HENLE: It’s biological nonsense.

Klaus Henle is well-qualified to make such judgements because he is now Dr Klaus Henle, an internationally-respected biologist working at a prestigious scientific institute in Leipzig. He still keeps some specimens of the Rosswag toads.

During the past few years he has meticulously trawled through every relevant piece of scientific literature available worldwide. His findings on the anomalies will be published in a peer-reviewed journal later this year.

DR KLAUS HENLE: The main conclusion of that paper will be the anomalies in Rosswag are really exceptional, worldwide exceptional. There is no single case which is even close to it in the number of different types of anomalies. The leg is just like a balloon.

The case that comes closest is from Hiroshima where toad eggs were deliberately exposed to radiation.

DR KLAUS HENLE: So the conclusion of the paper will be that it’s very likely radioactivity. There’s a small uncertainty left that it could have been chemicals, but we have no support to conclude that it’s chemicals.

The Rosswag quarry lies just 20km from the Neckarwestheim nuclear reactor, but there’s no evidence exactly what now lies under 100m of fill in the Rosswag quarry. Doctors Henle, Dubois and Steinhilber all agree the authorities should have excavated 25 years ago, rather than burying the evidence.

What Klaus Henle found in this quarry 25 years ago would, perhaps, in many ways be ancient history, except for one thing – Germany still has a problem with nuclear waste. By law it can’t be reprocessed, nor can it be exported. There’s no permanent storage facilities, so it’s being held, as it grows and grows, in temporary storage, while the debate goes on and on what to do with it.

This is Gorleben, the temporary storage site for Germany’s high-level nuclear waste. Nearby, a permanent storage site has been built in an underground salt formation, but it’s never been used. Not far away, I find the reason why.

MARIANNE FRITZEN, ANTI-NUCLEAR ACTIVIST: This is of the police who took the people away.

Veteran activist Marianne Fritzen shows me around a museum dedicated to the protests that started here in 1973 and have continued ever since. Over the decades, the demonstrators have won popular support and put the nuclear industry into reverse.

MARIANNE FRITZEN: Without protest here in this area, I guess we would have reprocessing plants, we would have nuclear power plants, and already the depository.

But with the advent of Angela Merkel’s CDU-dominated Government, the push has begun to open the permanent storage facility.

CHRISTIAN WOSSNER, GERMAN ATOMIC FORUM: What we are lacking, especially the last year, is the political will or political decision. And some time, even if you are against nuclear, you have to decide to go with a site. If you don’t go on with this issue, with the deep repository, you’re lengthening the time you have to keep the waste over ground.

REINHARD BUTIKOFER: It is clear that there are attempts here and there – from Tony Blair in Great Britain, from the French, from the Finnish – from George W. Bush in Washington and others, to sort of give nuclear energy a new lease on life.

Klaus Henle’s experience, and that of his country, hold some important lessons for Australia, not the least a permanent waste storage site should be agreed upon and built before nuclear reactors begin generating electricity.

REPORTER/CAMERA: Chris Hammer

ADDITIONAL CAMERA: Mick O’Brien, Steph Ketelhut

RESEACHER: Francesca Dziadek

EDITORS: Nick O’Brien, Sue Bell