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Gorleben on electoral ice

November 30, 2012

Germany's environment minister has said that exploration work on perhaps turning the nuclear waste storage facility at Gorleben into a permanent facility will be halted at least until next year's federal elections.

Containers containing radioactive waste being cooled to a low enough temperaturew to be put into underground storage at Gorleben.
Image: GNS Gesellschaft für Nuklear-Service mbH

Environment Minister Peter Altmaier said on Friday that all exploratory and survey work at the Gorleben atomic waste storage facility, being conducted with the view of making the temporary site permanent, would stop until Germany goes to the polls next year.

Though there's no fixed date yet, the federal election is likely to take place in September. Altmaier also said he hoped the exploratory work might remain frozen "beyond that point."

Various German governments have sought to make Gorleben a permanent nuclear waste storage facility since 1977, encountering considerable public resistance along the way. Chancellor Angela Merkel's involvement in developing the site as environment minister in the 1990's has also come under scrutiny.

Politicians recently agreed to start fresh talks, billed as a blank canvas, with the idea of finding a permanent storage facility somewhere else in Germany - rather than continuing to debate Gorleben's suitability specifically.

Altmaier invited opposition parties to such talks in February next year, apparently ensuring that the date would fall after state elections in Lower Saxony, where Gorleben is located.

"It is my firm conviction that there is the genuine will to reach a unanimous agreement even before the federal elections," said Altmaier, a member of Merkel's Christian Democrats.

For now, the environment minister said, the site would be "kept open," with no immediate impact on its 200 employees.

Federal and state elections in play

Lower Saxony's state premier, David McAllister, is also a member of the Christian Democrats, and the majority of his electorate oppose using the salt mines as a permanent storage facility. McAllister said on Thursday that Gorleben was unfit for the task.

McAllister said that, considering the emphasis placed on retrievability in the case of problems, salt was proving itself an unsuitable storage medium for radioactive material. He also said, however, that the site should still remain a theoretical candidate when new search begins.

"You can hardly embark on a fresh start in the search for a permanent storage site, calling it a blank sheet of paper, and simultaneously rule out one site straight away," McAllister said.

There is currently no permanent storage facility for the radioactive byproducts of nuclear energy anywhere in the world, only facilities treated as temporary solutions. The Gorleben site currently holds waste imported from France, Europe's largest nuclear power producer, with the delivery trains frequently a site of public protests in recent years.

Nuclear energy has been a considerable policy headache for Chancellor Merkel since the last federal election. At first her government stuck to a relatively unpopular campaign pledge to overturn a decision to phase out German nuclear power usage, seemingly expanding the atomic energy sector. Yet, days after a major March 2011 earthquake and tsunami triggered the nuclear accident at the Fukushima power plant in Japan, Merkel reinstated all previous plans to phase out German nuclear power production by 2020.

msh/hc (AFP, dpa, Reuters)