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Germany has decided to phase out nuclear power, but what about the leftover nuclear waste? A new law would allow Germany and other EU countries to export radioactive material.
The search in Germany for a permanent storage facility for nuclear waste has been a long slog and has so far led nowhere. Late last year, due to ongoing protests by the anti-nuclear lobby, Environment Minister Peter Altmaier announced an end to suitability studies on an old salt mine in Gorleben, Lower Saxony, which for a long time was viewed as a possible long-term site for storing nuclear waste.
Now, a new draft law has emerged in the midst of the waste site debate. Changes to the existing law would allow the possible export of spent nuclear fuel to storage facilities abroad. The law is required because of EU guidelines from 2011 that must be enshrined in national law by all member states by August 2013.
The draft, which Deutsche Welle has seen, allows the "permanent storage" of nuclear waste abroad when "at the time of delivery there is a valid accord between the Federal Republic of Germany and the third-party country." In other words, German nuclear waste may be stored outside of Germany, provided certain conditions are met: for example, that the storage facility in which the German waste is to be stored was already operational prior to the export of the waste.
In response to criticism from environmental groups, the German government has denied that plans are afoot to send German nuclear waste abroad. However, Berlin emphasized that Germany is obliged under European law to insert the criticized paragraph into existing German law.
"German nuclear waste is, as a matter of principle, to be stored in Germany," said a spokesman for the Environment Ministry in Berlin. Chancellor Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, added that German responsibility for German nuclear waste was "unchanged and 100 percent."
Haggling over language
Environmental groups, however, argue that Minister Altmaier has gone overboard with his draft. Tobias Münchmeyer, deputy director of political affairs for Greenpeace in Berlin, told DW that Altmaier had gone "far beyond what came out of Brussels and had created a basis for shunting nuclear waste off to Russia, for example."
In particular, there is one passage of the EU guidelines missing in the German draft. In the guidelines it says that "radioactive waste is to be stored permanently in the member state in which it is generated." Exceptions can only be made under certain circumstances. Münchmeyer argues that the German draft makes the export of waste an equally possible option.
National export ban is controversial
Whether the German draft could actually ban the export abroad of German nuclear waste entirely is questionable. Sabine Schlacke, Professor for Public Law at the University of Bremen, believes this cannot be done.
"I think that the option for sending waste abroad by a member state must be allowed because the guideline stipulates this," she says. Otherwise, nuclear plant operators could possibly demand that waste be stored in their own country. Schlacke maintains that the German Environment Ministry has stuck to the EU guideline in its draft law.
Critics remain wary, however, and argue that a mere promise by the government not to export nuclear waste is not enough. Radioactive waste remains dangerous for thousands of years.