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Germany's nuclear dumping ground - but where?

Jens Thurau / jsJuly 5, 2016

A 700-page document prepared by a special commission outlines the required criteria for Germany's yet-to-be-decided final disposal site for nuclear waste. The report has revived a long and controversial debate.

Symbolbild Radioaktivität Atomkraft Risiken
Image: Thomas Bethge/Fotolia.com

The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Socialist Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) finally agree on something: "We have come up with a good compromise," announced Ursula Heinen-Esser (CDU) and Michael Müller (SPD) Tuesday in Berlin. "But it was hard work."

For the last two years, both politicians have co-chaired a commission with a complicated task: What characteristics must a final disposal site for nuclear waste in Germany have? Questions involved geological formations - that is, salt, granite or clay; depth below the earth's surface; various methods; and how citizens might participate in the search for an appropriate site. It all sounds technical and a bit boring, but to date, every debate related to nuclear energy in Germany has been highly political and very emotional. And so it is here.

Yet the consensus is that Germany needs a central repository for the radioactive waste produced by the country's almost 20 nuclear power plants, the last of which are to be removed from the energy grid by 2022. And another thing is clear as well: The final depository will be at least 300 meters (approximately 1,000 feet) below the earth's surface. Yet, as has consistently been the case over the last 40 years, the most vehement fight will be over the fate of Gorleben. Specifically, as to the question of whether a final disposal site could be built there or not.

ARCHIV Erkundungsbergwerk Gorleben Salzstock Endlager für radioaktive Abfälle
Exploratory mine in Gorleben: Several billion euros have been invested, but still no nuclear waste has been deposited.Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Gorleben: The symbol of the anti-nuclear movement

Gorleben is a tiny municipality near the Elbe River in Lower Saxony. It is situated in the picturesque Wendland, a very sparsely populated region. Years ago, the German government - while still based in Bonn - wanted to build a nuclear waste repository in Gorleben as the final resting place for the radioactive waste produced by West Germany's nuclear power plants.

At the time, Gorleben was conveniently situated in a far-off region right near the border with then-East Germany. The government's calculus was that demonstrations in the remote area would not garner much attention. But things turned out very differently: Gorleben became the site of countless anti-nuclear protests, and thus a symbol for the larger fight over nuclear energy.

In the end, only an exploratory mine was constructed in the salt dome below the village (and in which, to date, no nuclear waste has ever been stored) and an above-ground interim nuclear waste storage facility.

'The map has yet to be drawn'

A few years ago, the government decided to give up on the idea of Gorleben as the sole option for a final nuclear waste depository site, and to look for options throughout the entire country. "The map is once again completely white," said then-Environmental Minister, and now Head of the Chancellor's Office, Peter Altmaier (CDU) in summarizing the situation.

Following the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe in 2011, Germany decided to withdraw from nuclear energy production altogether. But the waste remained, and two years ago a commission made up of scientists, environmentalists and politicians was created. Its goal: to develop criteria for a final nuclear repository. Thereafter, at least two potential sites would be found for the unpopular facility, so that authorities could choose between alternatives.

According to the report, several above-ground sites would be explored, and then later, at those that appeared most suitable, underground. The Bundestag, the lower house of Germany's parliament, must vote on each step along the way. The final decision on the site is to be made by 2030. And waste will begin being deposited from 2050 onward.

Recurring protests against making Gorleben the site of Germany's final nuclear waste depository.Image: DW/A. Buchberger

'Gorleben must be ruled out'

Gorleben is on the list of potential sites. And that has drawn the ire of its residents, as well as environmentalists. "Gorleben must finally be ruled out. The story of Gorleben is the story of lies and fraud, and that has to end," says Uwe Hiksch from Friends of Nature Germany (NFI), a non-profit for which Left Party politician Annette Groth also works in the Bundestag.

Michael Müller (SPD)
Commission co-chair Michael Müller (SPD): 'I would have struck Gorleben from the list.'Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Von Jutrczenka

This Tuesday, Hiksch and environmental activists demonstrated against the commission, near the chancellor's office in Berlin. Once again Wendland farmers drove their tractors to the capital. Their fear is that since so many billions of euros have already been invested in the site, and the salt dome already explored, politicians will, in the end, install the depository at the Lower Saxony site.

Commission co-chairman Michael Müller shares those concerns, but he wants the fight to end once and for all: "I ask you to please make a fair assessment of the report. I was for removing Gorleben from the list, too. But it will soon be out of the running anyhow, as the salt dome is not geologically suitable as a site."

One thing remains clear: The fight over the search for a final nuclear waste depository in Germany goes on. Currently, nuclear waste is being stored at interim sites at German nuclear power plants - above ground.