Over two years into the job, Germany's environment minister has made his first visit to the site of one of the country's dirtiest problems: The collapsing nuclear waste dump at Asse.
It was the German Environment Minister's first visit to the dilapidated nuclear waste site Asse in Lower Saxony since he took office in 2009.
Norbert Röttgen met residents and protesters outside Asse on Monday amid accusations that he had taken too long to visit the site of what is widely regarded as Germany's worst on-going environmental hazard.
Röttgen promised that the site's 126,000 barrels of radio active waste would be removed as quickly as possible. The former salt mine was used as a nuclear waste dump until 1978. It is gradually collapsing and threatens to contaminate the area's groundwater.
"No one is interested in procrastination," he told residents in Remlingen. "Everyone is working on retrieving (those barrels) in a way that no one will be harmed."
A 2008 report deemed Asse unstable due to a rift exposed through pressure on rock formations.
Ground water can now enter the salt mine where the toxic waste is stored. About 12,000 liters pass through the rocks every day. Barrels of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste are reportedly sitting in brine.
Some of the 126,000 barrels have started to leak due to a mix of corrosion and rock pressure. Dirt samples in the mine have revealed radioactivity far in excess of safety levels.
A ticking time bomb
On the surface, no contamination has been detected yet.
Ursula Kleber who runs a nearby organic farm, is well aware of the threat. She is part of a local group that has been protesting against the site for years.
"The radioactive substances belowground will slowly make their way into drinking water," Kleber said. "It's a ticking time bomb."
The alarm was first officially raised at Asse with a report 20 years ago. It was unable to rule out the possibility of water invading the salt dome structure.
The site's then operators began filling the mine's chambers in a bid to stabilize it, but today it is clear the strategy didn't work.
Nuclear waste to poison drinking water
Today's operator of the mine, the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS), has determined that the site will have to be emptied of all its nuclear waste.
Two other options included relocating waste within the mine and completely filling it in.
Experts estimate that it will cost several billion euros and take 30 to 40 years to retrieve all the waste - if everything goes according to plan. A further threat is that posed by an invasion of water during that period, which would pollute the area for decades.
All this has been known for over a year. That's why Ursula Kleber and others can't understand why work has still not begun. She blames an "administrative maze."
The BfS agrees: the authority handed over a 1,000 page application to the Lower Saxony Department of Environment. The application got approved, but was tied to 32 conditions in order to prevent workers from being exposed to radioactivity once they retrieve the barrels.
Safety regulations make sure that they are double and triple-secured: When drilling, the amount of radioactivity will be controlled every 20 centimeters. They'll also use emergency shutdown systems to ensure drilling holes could be shut immediately after an explosion.
Author: Klaus Dahmann /sst
Editor: Beate Hinrichs