My Neighbour, the Nuclear Power Station

Life in the village before and after nuclear phase-out

Locations of German nuclear power plants (15.04.2023)Original Source: Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz, nukleare Sicherheit und Verbraucherschutz

Germany is Exiting Nuclear

In the early 1960s, nuclear power stations were seen as the solution for clean and effective power generation. This changed as people became aware of the risks and the unresolved issue of how to disposal of nuclear waste. After years of political debate, the nuclear disaster in Fukushima in 2011 prompted the decision to decommission all German reactors permanently by 15 April 2023. This also applied in the municipality of Neckarwestheim in Southwest Germany, which has a nuclear power station nearby.

The nuclear power plant the day before shutdown (14.04.2023) by Hans-Joachim ArnoldLandesmuseum Württemberg

What does this ‘End of an Era’ feel like?

The Neckar joint nuclear power station (GKN) is situated ten kilometres south of Heilbronn. Its first reactor was commissioned in 1976, with the second following in 1989.

The power station is located on the boundary between two villages: Neckarwestheim (approximately 4,400 residents) and Gemmrigheim (approximately 4,800 residents).

Fishing in the neighbourhood of the nuclear power plant (1982)Original Source: Wirtschaftsarchiv Baden-Württemberg

A Nuclear Power Station in your Neighbourhood

“Grüß Gott, Nachbarn” (Hi there, neighbours!) – This was the greeting to readers of the first edition of the newspaper insert ‘Nachbar GKN’ in March 1978. Being neighbours means knowing and trusting each other and taking responsibility for each other. But it also means keeping a check on each other and respecting mutual obligations. What does that mean for the community?

View of Neckarwestheim (2020) by Kristof PoggelLandesmuseum Württemberg

Neckarwestheim, the ‘Atomic Village’

Because of its proximity to the nuclear power station, Neckarwestheim is also described by the media as the ‘atomic village’.

This is reflected in reporting in the press and has inspired novels such as ‘Der Atomkrieg in Weihersbronn’ (Nuclear War in Weihersbronn) (1981) or the documentary ‘Das Atomdorf’ (The Atomic Village) by SDR (1998).

This image became associated particularly with Neckarwestheim, with media writing about ‘nuclear wine’ and ‘nuclear potatoes’ being cultivated there. By contrast, there was scarcely any mention of Gemmrigheim in the media.

Spiegel cover picture after the reactor accident in Chernobyl, 1986 (12.05.1986)Original Source: DER SPIEGEL

Fear of Nuclear – Fear of no Nuclear

In Germany, discussions around nuclear power are dominated by fear. By contrast, many inhabitants of Neckarwestheim are concerned about having a stable power supply after nuclear phase-out. Some of them are using emergency power units and water containers to prepare for blackouts – a power cut that could last up to a week.

Protest march through Neckarwestheim, 1979 (1979)Original Source: Wirtschaftsarchiv Baden-Württemberg

Long-lasting Protests

Ever since the reactor accidents in Chernobyl and Fukushima, there is an overwhelming fear of nuclear power. This fear is evident from the protests against the power station, even in Neckarwestheim directly. Even as early as the 1970s, voices of opposition could be heard in the neighbouring communities.

Photo display at the "Abschaltfest" (shutdown party) (15.04.2023) by Karin BürkertLandesmuseum Württemberg

Protesters chant "Shut down" at the 2023 "Abschaltfest" (shutdown festival)

Decommissioning! But what to do with the Nuclear Waste?

So even in the early days, the neighbouring power station was criticised by those opposed to nuclear power, who called for the plant to be decommissioned. After decommissioning, the nuclear power station leaves the community with an intermediate storage system for nuclear waste. But to what extent did Neckarwestheim benefit from having a nuclear power station as a neighbour?

Council chamber in Neckarwestheim (19.05.2014) by Nikolay KazakovLandesmuseum Württemberg

Financial Possibilities

The nuclear power station resulted in high trade tax income for the community. That income allowed for infrastructure developments in the village. The futuristic-looking council hall or ‘Ratssaal’ is an impressive example of the community’s wealth. Many of the residents are proud of the good things that were achieved using the money.

Reblandhalle from the outside (07.08.2012) by Dietmar StraußLandesmuseum Württemberg

Structural Changes

Neckarwestheim was able to use its financial headroom to fund many construction projects. Modern buildings such as crèches, the youth centre and the primary school were constructed. One particularly expensive building was the ‘Reblandhalle’. It is the largest location for events in the Heilbronn district.

Reblandhalle from the inside (07.08.2012) by Dietmar StraußLandesmuseum Württemberg

The related high personnel and maintenance costs will in future have to be borne without the additional income from the power station. In other areas, the nuclear phase-out is already making itself felt. The decommissioning of Block I in year 2011 already had an economic impact.

Concerns about the shutdown of Unit 1 (2011) (15.04.2011)Original Source: AFP Deutschland

Concerns surrounding the Decommissioning of Block I (2011)

In an interview a hotelier and the mayor stated that the shutdown might cause jobloss and profit loss.

Restaurants in Neckarwestheim (February 2024) by Christina MichelsLandesmuseum Württemberg

Dependency of Pubs and Restaurants

The pubs and restaurants in Neckarwestheim benefited from the power station. Particularly during the annual inspections, hundreds or even thousands of additional workers were brought to the power station, creating additional demand. When Block I was decommissioned, customer numbers collapsed. Other factors like the effects of the pandemic, increased prices and the lack of skilled labour are further challenges prompting many rural businesses to give up. But it wasn’t just the economy that was influenced by having a nuclear power station as a neighbour – there were also societal effects.

Children's drawing of the nuclear power plant (February 2024)Landesmuseum Württemberg

Growing up with a Nuclear Power Station as your Neighbour

Even as small children, the inhabitants of Neckarwestheim learn things about the nuclear power station. Many of them are familiar with the technical differences between Chernobyl and Neckarwestheim. As a result, they consider the risks to be low and are not so concerned. Some residents even refer to the nuclear power station affectionately as the ‘Dampfkessel’ or ‘steam boiler’. The people trust the staff at the power station.

Steam cloud (15.03.2023) by Romina NiederhausenLandesmuseum Württemberg

Safety through Knowledge

Many inhabitants personally know employees at the power station and get their information from them. Furthermore, ever since it was commissioned, the power station maintained a dialogue with the public and the inhabitants of the village to explain the working procedures. One of the residents said: “I basically always trusted that things in Germany work and are well monitored and that a tsunami like in Fukushima was unlikely in Neckarwestheim.”

The nuclear power plant under revision, 1986 (1986)Original Source: Wirtschaftsarchiv Baden-Württemberg

A Feel for Technology

The workers at the nuclear power station serve as everyday experts. They know about the machine, develop a feel for the technology and make use of all of their senses. One employee said this about the way from the entrance to his work station: “You open the door and there’s a machine operating. Then you hear, you smell, you feel the humidity. You notice vibrations. Before you even start your work, those things tell you: Oh. They are running at partial load. And it smells of hydrazine here. Is there a leak somewhere?”

Public meeting on the subject of nuclear power, 1979 (1979)Original Source: Wirtschaftsarchiv Baden-Württemberg

“The GKN is Part of Who we Are!”

Knowledge plays a major role in a neighbourly relationship. The citizens requested information about the processes and the safety in the nuclear power station. This knowledge was passed on over generations and became established in everyday conversations over the garden fence or at the local pub. That doesn’t mean that everyone is always in agreement or that there are no doubts. But fundamentally, they developed an image of themselves, and the nuclear power station became an integral part of that image over the years.

Logo of the youth centre "Block 3" (Unit 3) (15.07.2023) by Agnes DeinleinLandesmuseum Württemberg

Radiant Smile

People living in the vicinity of Neckarwestheim make jokes about radioactive radiation, like “You all glow in the dark!”. The people living in Neckarwestheim embrace this humour. For example, the youth club in the village was christened ‘Block 3’ in reference to the nuclear power station’s two reactor blocks. There even used to be a pub called ‘Uranium-Bar’ downstairs from the town hall. The power station became part of people’s everyday lives.

Box: Radioactive toothpaste "Doramad" (1940–1950)Landesmuseum Württemberg

Radiant Smile

The radioactive toothpaste "Doramad", which came onto the market in 1940, contained thorium-X and promised "radiant white teeth". After the atomic bombs were dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the toothpaste had to be withdrawn from the market.

The logo of the "900 years of Neckarwestheim" anniversary (2023)Landesmuseum Württemberg

900 Years of Neckarwestheim

The logo for the anniversary year comprises a stylised ‘900’ – with the second zero showing an atomic model. The community has thus integrated the nuclear power station into its image for the first time in the year of decommissioning. Energy is equated with other aspects such as history and nature. In this way, the community wants to convey the message that Neckarwestheim is more than an ‘atomic village’.

View of the interim storage facility, 2019 (07.08.2019) by Christopher MickOriginal Source: BGZ Gesellschaft für Zwischenlagerung mbH

What Remains?

In 2006, an interim storage facility for radioactive waste was commissioned at the power station which has approval for a period of 40 years. There is one thing that the proponents and opponents of nuclear power agree on: a solution is needed for disposing of the waste. It will take until roughly 2038 for the nuclear power station to be dismantled.

Steam cloud above Neckarwestheim in the evening (February 2014) by Michael KauffmannOriginal Source: Wikimedia Commons

Neighbours’ Memories of the Nuclear Power Station

What will remain when the nuclear power station has been dismantled? Or is it worthy of protection as an industrial monument? Could it become a place of reflection and education for sustainable and safe energy generation? Will the nuclear power station become part of the community’s collective memory? Is there a risk of financial decline and a crisis of identity? Most of the residents don’t see it that dramatically – but they do miss the steam cloud as an orientation point and a symbol of their home.

Book cover "Alltag Konflikt Wandel" (2024) by Sigrid MillaLandesmuseum Württemberg

Further Reading

Students on the Empirical Cultural Studies programme at the University of Tübingen carried out research in Neckarwestheim and its surroundings over three semesters. Find out more in the book (in German) on the research: Karin Bürkert (Ed.): Alltag. Konflikt. Wandel. In Nachbarschaft zum Kernkraftwerk. Tübingen EKW-Verlag 2023.

Credits: Story

Ludwig-Uhland-Institut für Empirische Kulturwissenschaft | Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen:
 Dr. Karin Bürkert
Johannes Alt
Agnes Deinlein
Nils Fink
Caroline Kunz
Christina Michels
Romina Niederhausen
Jessica Reichert

Landesstelle für Alltagskultur:
Sabine Zinn-Thomas und Angelika Merk
Museum für Alltagskultur: 
Markus Speidel

Editorial/Realization: Anna Gnyp (Digitale Museumspraxis & IT, Landesmuseum Württemberg)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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