Where is there a suitable permanent storage site for nuclear waste? The question has been up in the air for decades, but Germany hopes a commission can determine the criteria in the search for a final facility.
Chancellor Angela Merkel government's U-turn on nuclear power was quite amazing: following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in March 2011, the center-right coalition decided to close all nuclear power plants in Germany over the next decade - that is, a phase-out by 2022.
What will happen to the spent radioactive fuel rods, however, remains to be seen. The issue has been a matter of debate in Germany for many years. For a long time, politicians favored final storage deep in the salt dome near the town of Gorleben in Lower Saxony. In the late 1970s, West Germany began to look into the site, then a remote location, to see if it was suitable as a safe permanent storage facility. Alternatives were not considered at the time.
The survey proved to be time-consuming, so an interim storage site was arranged nearby in the early 1980s. Accompanied by often violent protests, spent fuel rods are regularly transported from the French nuclear reprocessing plant in La Hague to the - still - interim site.
Over the years, the wisdom of continuing to explore the salt dome was increasingly questioned. Opponents of creating a final storage site for radioactive waste at Gorleben warned of the danger of leaking radioactivity and water penetration due to porous rock.
Previous German governments - including Angela Merkel, who was environment minister in the Kohl government from 1994 to 1998 - stood accused of setting their sights on Gorleben as a potential final storage site without basing their choice on expert opinion.
In 2000, the ruling center-left government put exploration of the salt dome on hold for ten years. In 2010, with Angela Merkel at the helm, exploration was resumed. But opposition against nuclear energy grew after the Fukushima disaster and Chancellor Merkel's government came under pressure to keep an open mind in the search for a final nuclear waste storage site.
Last year, Environment Minister Peter Altmaier announced a halt to exploratory work on making the nuclear storage site at Gorleben permanent. He said the government is working on draft legislation to enable a nationwide search for a permanent storage facility for nuclear fuel rods.
A good compromise?
A change of government in the state of Lower Saxony, where Gorleben is located, brought the center-left opposition to power in January state elections. The state's new Social Democratic premier, Stephan Weil, said he would only agree to legislation in the search for a permanent storage site if Gorleben were taken off the list. Meanwhile, however, Altmaier, Weil and Lower Saxony Environment Minister Stefan Wenzel have found a compromise solution that does not necessarily exclude Gorleben.
Under the cross-party compromise, a commission consisting of 24 politicians and members of society will determine the criteria for the nationwide search for a facility. The group is scheduled to hold public meetings until the end of 2015.
Jochen Stay, a member of Germany's "Ausgestrahlt" anti-nuclear energy organization, wonders how much influence the panel can have, since legislation is scheduled to go into effect as early as June 2013. "It is not at all clear how binding the commission's conclusions will be if the legislation is agreed on beforehand," he told DW. According to the current draft, the Bundestag [lower house of parliament] is not forced to consider the commission's findings. Stay urged the order be reversed: legislation should only be passed after the commission hands in its results.
State parliamentarian Karin Bertholdes-Sandrock is skeptical about the future commission's work. "Where Gorleben is concerned, many members of the commission are biased," she told DW. "From the start, they will approach the issue with the attitude: Gorleben is unsuitable."
All the same, Bertholdes-Sandrock approves of retaining Gorleben as a possible choice for a permanent storage site. After all, she said, we have no "scientific proof whether Gorleben is suitable or not."