The Neckar in southwest Germany is a lovely little river.
Not as boisterous as the Nile. Not as artificially straightened as the Panama Canal. Not as raging as the Zambezi. But also not as boring as the Avon.
Just a regular river with many loops and bends, with steep vineyards on the banks, and here and there a small town with pretty half-timbered houses.
In the morning, the weather is nice, and I walk upstream on the west bank of this waterway, somewhere between Heilbronn and Bietigheim-Bissingen-Besigheim. I don’t know where exactly, to be honest. The nice thing about hiking along the river is that you can’t really get lost, so you don’t have to focus on the path too much.
In the afternoon, the weather turns gray and uncomfortable, so I decide to turn back. Because I want to get to know the east bank as well, I still walk to the next bridge in Kirchheim and cross the river there, making my way back on the eastern shore.
I had already seen it from the other side, but managed not to think about it: There is a power plant in the way. A nuclear power plant. Right on the river, because these power plants constantly need fresh water to cool the reactor.
I don’t have a map with me because, as I said, how can you get lost by the river? But now, the path becomes narrower and narrower, more and more undergrowth, more and more hidden, more and more scrubby. I haven’t seen any signs for a long time, nor any other hikers.
But there is a fisherman coming towards me. (They like to fish in the waste water of nuclear power plants, as someone told me in Ukraine. Because they catch bigger fish there.)
“Excuse me, sir,” I inquire, “if I follow this path, will I be able to walk past the power plant?” I remember that in civilized countries, even military installations keep a strip of coastline clear for walkers. (See chapter 37 of my article on Cornwall.) Or that in progressive German states, walking along the river enjoys constitutional protection. (See chapter 131 of this article on a hike to the royal castles in Bavaria.)
“Ain’t no path around the power plant,” says the local fisherman. “But you can ring the bell and some fella is gonna come and take you across the premises.”
“Oh,” I say, amazed and flabbergasted. “Thank you.”
I actually feel rather uncomfortable about ringing the power plant operator out of his office. I am generally very reticent when it comes to inconveniencing other people. I’m the kind of person who would rather die than force the night duty pharmacist to leave the crossword puzzle for a few minutes. At the pedestrian crossing, I wait for all the cars to pass instead of pushing the button. And 30 minutes before closing time, I don’t enter any shops because I know the clerks want to start cleaning up. That’s probably why I feel more comfortable in polite societies like Japan or Persia.
Besides, I can’t discount the possibility that the fisherman was joking.
Well, at least that second issue is resolved once I find myself in front of a concrete wall with rolls of barbed wire and a heavy iron gate. A small sign indeed calls for hikers to interrupt the staff’s afternoon nap: “Users of the shore path, please ring bell.”
All right, then. The detour around the entire site would really be too long, I have to concede. So I ring the bell.
“Yes, good afternoon?” A friendly voice.
“Hello, good afternoon, I find myself at the southern entrance to your impressive nuclear installation and was wondering if it was at all possible to hike on north, toward Lauffen.”
“Do you have a vaccination certificate with you?”
“Yes, sure.” (Great, maybe I can get a nuclear inoculation here, that will last longer.)
“And an ID card or something?”
“And a dog?”
“No,” I reply innocently, as if it was the most normal thing to forget one’s dog at home.
“Okay, then I’ll send a colleague down. But it may take a few minutes, is that okay?”
“Yeah sure, absolutely no need to rush,” I reply. Not only out of politeness and because I’m never in a hurry. A nuclear power plant is really the last place where you would want someone to rush and hurry.
After a few minutes, a security guard shows up, and – because I don’t have my own – even brings a dog. Now, that’s a visitor service! Dogs apparently act as early indicators of radiation in nuclear power plants, like canaries in the coal mine.
Through the barred gate, he checks my vaccination certificate and my ID card and then mutters a few code words over the radio, which I politely fail to memorize and which open the gate remotely.
And poof, I’m in a nuclear power plant for the first time in my life.
“That’s because there is a centuries-old right of way for a towpath here on the Neckar River,” the armed guard explains in response to my question. “When the nuclear power plant was built, maintaining the right of way was a condition for the construction permit.” As a historically minded hiker, I find it fascinating that I can walk past pressurized water reactors, cell coolers, hybrid cooling towers and steam generators because of an equitable servitude from the time of the Holy Roman Empire. It’s amazing how a medieval bridleway easement has survived over the centuries with all their wars and revolutions.
“In the summer, we get more people, of course,” the guard tells me. “Sometimes whole groups of hikers show up, as well as cyclists and even horseback riders.” And he adds: “The horses, I find that a bit over the top, to be frank.” Maybe dogs and horses don’t get along very well. But that’s the way it is. Because the right of way explicitly included horses. After all, it was a towpath. And how else would you pull the barges from Rotterdam to Reutlingen?
And therefore, without a dispensation from the Imperial Court in Wetzlar, which was prematurely dissolved in 1806, horses cannot now be barred from crossing this otherwise high-security enclosure.
After 440 meters, we reach the northern end of the complex. The guard radios again, the gate opens, and he wishes me good luck in getting to Lauffen before nightfall and rain. And that was it, my first encounter with nuclear power, very friendly, but also rather bizarre.