Germany is seeking to export 951 spent nuclear fuel rods, currently held at a temporary storage facility in the country's west, to Russia – but critics have called the plans dangerous and irresponsible.
Nuclear waste disposal is a divisive issue in Germany
It may not be a universally popular move, but exporting nuclear waste is permitted under German law – on the condition that the destination country disposes the waste safely.
In fact, Germany has sent shipments of nuclear waste to Russia several times in the past.
Up until 2009, one firm regularly exported uranium hexafluoride, or UF6, from a fuel rod treatment facility in Gronau.
UF6 is a by-product created when uranium is enriched, and in order to avoid legal difficulties associated with disposing radioactive waste, the company rebranded its by-product as a resource to be sent to Russia for processing.
The deliveries were stopped in 2009, partly as a result of fierce protests.
Now, the export of German nuclear waste to Russia is back on the cards, as the German government considers an application to export 951 spent fuel rods to Russia for disposal. According to critics, however, the stakes may be higher this time around.
"We're dealing with something different," said Tobias Muenchmeyer of Greenpeace Germany.
The Russian processing facility, Mayak, was the site of one of the largest ever nuclear explosions
Muenchmeyer said that unlike UF6, which is associated with low radiation levels, "we're dealing with the spent nuclear fuel from a research reactor in Germany, which, like all nuclear waste, also contains plutonium and other fission products and therefore represents incredibly dangerous cargo."
The fuel rods, from a former East German research reactor near Dresden, were originally imported from the Soviet Union in 1957 and were used until 1991.
Research reactors often use highly enriched material compared to most nuclear power plants – including material that can be used to make atom bombs.
Russia and the United States have agreed to take back such waste in order to limit the spread of weapons-grade material and the German state of Saxony, which owns the rods, is relying on that agreement to wash its hands of the matter.
Because there is no interim storage facility in Saxony, the fuel rods were moved in 2005 to Ahaus in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and Saxony has been paying rent for their storage ever since.
"Our position is clear," a spokesperson for Saxony's Science Ministry said recently, "as long as international conditions are satisfied, then we want to see the material put back where it belongs."
Passing the rod
As far as Saxony is concerned, 'where it belongs' is in a Russian nuclear facility at Mayak, some 150 km south-east of Ekaterinburg.
For the opposition Greens, though, Mayak is anything but a safe repository. "We know that Mayak is highly contaminated," said Sylvia Kotting-Uhl, Greens spokesperson for nuclear policy.
"We also know that Mayak is not operated with anything like the same philosophy of safety that is considered standard here in Germany. So to move the waste fuel rods there is incredibly negligent."
Mayak – or 'Lighthouse' – is one of the oldest nuclear research centers of the former Soviet Union, and was also home, in 1957, to one of the largest-ever nuclear tests.
Some experts consider Mayak's environment to be more polluted than that of Chernobyl, the site of the Soviet Union's worst nuclear accident.
Germany's Environment Ministry, which confirmed that it had received an application to export the waste after press reports first uncovered the story last week, is responsible for determining whether such an export would be legal.
The recent transport of nuclear waste to Gorleben, in northern Germany, sparked mass protests
Setting a precedent
An Environment Ministry spokesperson said that it would "only make a decision after careful consideration of questions over the safety of the Russian site Mayak."
If the experts decide that Mayak is safe, little will stand between the waste and its final repository. The Environment Ministry has confirmed that a delivery contract has already been drawn up between Germany and Russia, ready to be signed.
This has left anti-nuclear groups and the opposition concerned, and only in part because they believe the 349 kilograms of plutonium will not be stored safely if they do make their way to Mayak.
Some fear the export could create a precedent, and encourage nations like Russia to trade nuclear waste for cash.
Greenpeace's Thomas Muenchmeyer says that Russians have extended such offers to accept waste in the past, but that "few of those have been official so far."
He says South Korea and Taiwan are also potentially interested in such trades, but these are "still – thankfully - completely taboo in Europe."
The European Union's energy chief, Guenther Oettinger, recently announced plans to introduce a Europe-wide ban on the export of nuclear waste.
The announcement was welcomed cautiously by anti-nuclear campaigners, who are concerned that it could contain loopholes when it comes to the export of 'resources' like UF6.
Author: Mathias Boelinger, Sophie Tarr
Editor: Nathan Witkop