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Germany's nuclear waste secret

Kiyo Dörrer
July 1, 2024

Germany has a dirty little secret. In the middle of the country, deep underground, lies a former salt mine that was turned into a radioactive waste dump, and it has been leaking for decades. How did this come about? And what will be done?


Over six decades of nuclear energy have left a radioactive legacy in Germany. A former salt mine, for example, has been a temporary storage site for nuclear waste since the 1960s.

The Asse site was only supposed to be an interim solution, but the waste is still there and radiating. The barrels used to store it were made from regular metal and not intended for nuclear waste. An additional problem is the water seeping into the underground site. The 500+ leaks could lead to the old mine being flooded. "That’s why we have to remove the waste," says Anna-Lena Zimmermann, who works for the site operator.

Meanwhile, the mine is porous and contains cracks. Six hundred people work in the Asse to monitor and secure the mine.


The big question is how this could happen. Did those responsible know there would be problems when the mine was turned into a nuclear waste dump? "Yes, but they came to a different assessment," says Frank Ehrlich from the Asse information bureau. The growing nuclear energy sector needed a dumping ground fast, so the risks were played down.

And, amid the mismanagement and lack of transparency, nobody knows exactly how much of what kind of waste is stored in the Asse. In 2013, the German government decided to have the waste removed because of the danger.

There is no real precedent for this, however. The worst-case scenario for Frank Ehrlich would be having to close the site and then potentially keeping radioactive material above ground for a lengthy period of time.

The next question would be: where? Germany does not yet have a permanent deposit site. The Asse is an example of the long-term consequences of nuclear energy being largely ignored.