This is the story of NUKEM

From manufacturer of fuel elements to specialist in decommissioning and dismantling

 

When NUKEM was founded in 1960, it had a clearly defined and ambitious goal: developing and manufacturing nuclear fuel elements. At the time, the peaceful use of nuclear energy in Germany had yet to make the transition from research to industrial and economic use. It was in Kahl, Bavaria, that the first commercial nuclear power plant was connected to the gird. The boiling water reactor provided electricity for around 20,000 households. The German Federal Government's support measures were used to develop a comprehensive understanding of the field of manufacturing nuclear fuel elements. The variety of reactor concepts, as well as their various fuel elements, which were initially pursued in Germany allowed NUKEM to build up a large body of knowledge.

 

NUKEM found particular success and recognition on the international stage in the field of developing and manufacturing fuel elements for research reactors. Despite its great successes on the market, shareholders were convinced that NUKEM would not be able to persist in the face of competition as a system-independent manufacturer of fuel elements over the long term. This led to the creation of joint companies with German reactor manufacturers in May 1969. As a result of transferring its work sector of fuel and fuel elements to light water nuclear power plants, NUKEM lost almost the entire work sector for which it had been founded nine years before, namely manufacturing fuel elements for power reactors - with the exception of fuel elements for high-power reactors.

 

NUKEM’s reaction to this reduction of its core business was an intensified commitment to the other fields of the nuclear fuel cycle, such as supplying uranium, enrichment, reprocessing, transport, waste management and even nuclear engineering and nuclear plant construction.

 

Starting in the middle of the 1960s, the operation of the first nuclear power plants resulted in the development of a fuel cycle industry in Germany as well. For all the important activities except for uranium mining, NUKEM either seized the initiative itself or became involved with appropriate companies at an early stage. One area of focus was fuel procurement, with NUKEM later becoming the largest independent uranium trading company in the world.

 

The expansion of its manufacturing capacity for fuel elements also gave rise to NUKEM’s engineering and plant construction sector. Initially only conceived of for its own needs, this expertise became so in demand from the 1970s that it started being offered on the market. In addition to process-related equipment, buildings and facilities for nuclear research were also supplied. As early as a decade later, NUKEM had become a partner in the consortium of bidders for the Wackersdorf Reprocessing Plant. This was intended to become the central reprocessing plant for used fuel rods from nuclear power plants in Germany. The construction was accompanied by massive protests from parts of the population and stopped after four years in 1989.

 

The anti-nuclear power movement in Germany arose in the 1970s. It initially concentrated on opposing the construction or commissioning of nuclear power plants. Starting in the late 1970s, it directed its focus toward reprocessing and final storage. In the movement’s heyday, there were demonstrations taking place with more than 100,000 participants.

 

Against the backdrop of the anti-nuclear power movement in Germany, an incident in the German-French affiliated company Transnuklear in 1988 resulted in NUKEM taking a new direction on the market. This incident led to Transnuklear losing all transport permits and NUKEM losing statutory nuclear permits and thus their operating licence until personnel-related and organisational responsibility could be established. NUKEM withdrew from handling nuclear fuels entirely, including carrying out transports and disposing of radioactive waste as a service. This left nuclear engineering technology, plant construction and trading with uranium. Both fields of activity made waves owing to the focus on international markets and rapid growth.

 

Over the course of the general trend of “concentrating on the core business”, the NUKEM Group’s holding company, RWE, transferred it to a financial investor in 2006. Products and services relating to the field of nuclear fuel service, such as trading with fuel for power and research reactors as well as trading with isotopes, were pooled in NUKEM GmbH. Business activities in the field of decommissioning, management of radioactive waste and engineering technology were concentrated in its subsidiary, NUKEM Technologies GmbH. This subsidiary was taken over by the Russian nuclear power plant constructor Atomstroyexport in 2009. The fuel service business sector was sold to the Canadian Cameco in 2013.

 

In 2019, the fuel company TVEL, which, along with Atomstroyexport, belongs to ROSATOM, was given the task of creating a new back-end sector by integrating all resources available at ROSATOM. The goal of this group sector was pooling the expertise in the waste treatment and dismantling sectors. With its transfer to the newly created division, NUKEM doesn’t just bring a brand with a long tradition and relevant references to the table. Together with TVEL, new research and development work is also carried out.

 

Taking a look at the history of NUKEM today after more than 60 years reveals a wealth of different activities and connections. Over the decades, the company's development hasn’t just been associated with the overall development of nuclear technology, but also strongly influenced by international events, political occurrences, and its own drastic developments throughout the company's history.

 

“The essential components of our genetic code are flexibility and the ability to adapt ourselves to changing environments and market conditions. This doesn't exclude tradition and change - NUKEM's history is characterised by a particular understanding of the market and the competence to reinvent and reorientate ourselves to a certain degree.”

Thomas Seipolt | CEO of NUKEM

 

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