France wants to build a permanent nuclear waste storage facility not far from the German border. The plan has irked many in the region, but the government in Berlin sees no need for action.
Nuclear power plants produce radioactive waste, which emits radiation for thousands of years. Even Germany, which is set to phase out nuclear power, is looking for a final repository for its spent nuclear fuel, but has not yet decided on the location. Finding a geologically suitable site is not the problem, but rather, the protests over the location. Nobody wants to live with a nuclear waste dump at their doorstep.
For many decades, France has focused and relied on nuclear power, and now, plant operators are under pressure to find repositories for the radioactive waste.
The French government seems to have its sights set on Bure, a town in eastern France, around 120 kilometers (74 miles) from the German border. There, scientists have spent years investigating whether highly and moderately radioactive waste can be disposed of 500 meters underground. ANDRA, the French national agency for radioactive waste, believes that Bure offers what a repository requires: Nuclear waste can be stored there for 100 years; then, the site can be closed off and ultimately, the nuclear waste can decay there for 100,000 years until the radiation no longer poses a threat to humans.
Opponents of the site feel less bothered by the repository itself then by the decision-making process that led to choosing it. In mid-July, the government added a last minute clause to a legislative package promoting business development but did not hold a debate or vote in parliament. And since no other potential nuclear waste sites have been explored in France, critics believe that the Bure location was practically predetermined. The Green party group in the French national assembly calls the procedure an "unbearable coup," while the nation's nuclear regulatory body and the French Institute for Radiological Protection and Reactor Safety (IRSN) have expressed "numerous reservations" about the plans.
The French Greens see eye to eye with their political counterparts on the German side of the border - actually, with almost all the political parties in Germany.
The German Social Democrat MEP, Jo Leinen, criticizes the fact that parliament was bypassed, saying it "contradicts all the rules of transparency and good neighborly relations."
A storm of protest has been unleashed in the German state of Saarland, which is situated 150 kilometers away from Bure: the entire state government openly rejects Bure as a nuclear waste disposal site.
Plans known for several years
French Environment Minister Segolene Royal does not understand the fuss. "The groundwork for the establishment of a repository was agreed on several years ago," she said. Indeed, a law passed in 2006 provides a basis for the waste storage; however, it does not specify the location. Ironically, the former French presidential candidate also added, "Personally, I oppose the underground disposal of nuclear waste." Apparently, the government has made its decision, but Royal states, "I will make sure that the principle is reversible." This supposedly means that if technical alternatives were found, the nuclear waste would be disposed of in a different manner. Prime Minister Valls assured critics that, "future generations will not only prevent storage in deep rock layers, but that the stored waste will be retrievable."
In light of the massive criticism, the French national agency for nuclear waste now makes a point of promoting transparency. On its website, the organization writes, "In the spirit of openness and exchange, ANDRA would like to open a dialogue with all people affected." ANDRA has even organized guided tours to the site – each year, it receives 100,000 visitors. No signs of resistance can be seen in the small town, which comes as no surprise, considering the fact that the repository will create jobs in the economically weak area.
German, French approaches differ
This is where the great divide between the German and French mentalities has become clear. After the nuclear disaster in the Japanese city of Fukushima, the German government, led by Christian Democrats, decided to phase out nuclear energy while the French have barely expressed any apprehension about their atomic energy policy.
Only recently have the French decided to adjust their policy by slightly reducing nuclear energy output and promoting electricity from renewable sources and energy conservation. Even if the French went for a radical shift in nuclear policy, radioactive waste would still be produced for a long time and emit radiation for an even longer period of time. So a repository for nuclear waste is still necessary.
Whether the repository is situated on the French Atlantic coast or near the German border, protests are of no avail, as the German government points out that it is France's prerogative. Hubert Ulrich, chairman of the Green Party in Saarland would like to take the dispute to the highest level and says, "We have to put Merkel on the train to Paris."
But that is unlikely to happen. The German government has succinctly stated that the location of the French repository for nuclear waste lies solely within the French government's jurisdiction.