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A home for nuclear waste

Naomi Conrad / ccApril 10, 2013

Politicians have been arguing for years about where to site a permanent storage facility for German nuclear waste. An agreement has now been reached that will allow the search to go ahead, but details remain unclear.

Niedersachsen/ Eine Vogelscheuche mit einer aus der Horrorfilm-Reihe "Scream" bekannten Totenkopf-Maske steht am Dienstag (22.11.11) in Metzingen im Landkreis Luechow-Dannenberg auf Faessern, die mit einem Symbol fuer Radioaktivitaet bemalt sind. In den kommenden Tagen werden im Landkreis Luechow-Dannenberg umfangreiche Proteste gegen den geplanten Castor-Transport erwartet. Der Castor-Transport nach Gorleben wird nach Angaben der Anti-Atom-Organisation "ausgestrahlt" am Mittwoch (23.11.11) um 14.36 Uhr im nordfranzoesischen Valognes starten. Foto: Axel Heimken/dap
Image: dapd

The words that kept recurring at the talks on Tuesday evening (09.04.2013) were transparency, trust, and - above all - consensus. 35 years - that's how long it has taken for German federal and state politicians to agree to look again at where to site a permanent storage facility for German nuclear waste.

Restarting the search

German Environment Minister Peter Altmaier of the Christian Democrats declared this the "big breakthrough." All parties, he said, had agreed on the draft of a bill, with a view to passing it before the end of the year. It stipulates that a commission comprising 24 people from both politics and civil society should examine which sites would be suitable for the storage of radioactive waste. So far, the waste has been kept at the interim site at Gorleben in the northern German state of Lower Saxony.

For years now there has been fierce debate about whether the salt mine at Gorleben is suitable for storing nuclear waste at all - and about which other locations might be more suitable. Now there's a timetable for the process of reaching a decision.

The proposed commission has to define its guidelines and criteria by the end of 2015. These will then form the basis for determining the location of the site, such as which kinds of rock are best suited for the purpose and whether the waste should be stored above or below ground. Politicians insisted that nothing had been drawn on the map yet, but they emphasized that the waste would still be stored in Germany, not be sent abroad.

Jürgen Trittin, the Green party's parliamentary leader, announced that Germany was setting out "to find the most secure final repository in Germany for the most dangerous type of waste." And Altmaier added: "This is a consensual settlement of the last contentious issue of the [German] nuclear era."

Environment Minister Peter Altmaier (CDU) in front of the Environment Ministry in Berlin. Photo: Kay Nietfeld/dpa
Environment Minister Peter Altmaier hailed the agreement as a big breakthroughImage: picture-alliance/dpa

For although Germany decided in 2011 to phase out nuclear energy and close all its nuclear power plants, the final storage of waste is still an issue - and will continue to be so for a very, very long time. As the Social Democrat premier of the state of Lower Saxony, Stephan Weil, pointed out, nuclear waste remains radioactive for almost a million years.

It is still unclear what will happen to the Castor containers that are currently at the Sellafield reprocessing plant in Britain, and at La Hague in France. They are supposed to be sent back to Germany this year. Altmaier announced that the decision had been taken not to bring the containers to Gorleben, in a move intended to build confidence in the region. "We are prepared to bear part of the burden, if other states are prepared to do the same," said Schleswig-Holstein's Environment Minister, Robert Habeck of the Greens. Schleswig-Holstein could store some of the waste in its existing nuclear reactors.

Over the years there have been repeated protests in Gorleben against the storage facility. Nonetheless, it will still remain under consideration as one possible solution.

Criticism from environmental groups

Altmaier was very clear in saying that the operators of the nuclear power plants will bear the cost of the final storage facility. "The law has clear regulations that those who have created the nuclear waste must also take care of its disposal," he said. The minister declined to speculate on how high the costs might actually be, saying that he did not want to give any figures, either for this or for how many potential sites were under discussion. In recent years, the operators have invested around 1.6 million euros in Gorleben.

Castor containers containing highly radioactive nuclear waste. Photo: GNS Gesellschaft für Nuklear-Service mbH
German nuclear waste is still being stored in GorlebenImage: GNS Gesellschaft für Nuklear-Service mbH

Environmental groups, however, were critical of the politicians' approach. "In this construction, a lot of things have already been decided which actually preempt the work the enquiry commission should be doing," Heinz Smithal of Greenpeace in Germany told DW. He appealed to politicians "not to squeeze this difficult problem into the small window between a state election and a general election," and stressed the need for the approach to have a solid foundation.

There was also vocal criticism of the agreement on Twitter. Anti-nuclear activists immediately called on people to tweet Altmaier to "tell Peter the law comes later." Twitter users were encouraged to tweet messages like "First cook, then eat!" or "First sow, then reap!" to reinforce their point that the law should not be passed until the commission has reported its findings.

They'll be unsuccessful. Altmaier has said that the bill will go through parliament before the summer recess. The search for the final repository site, however, will take rather longer; and it will probably be decades before the site becomes operational.