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Nuclear waste site search

Gero Rueter / jrbJune 28, 2013

Fifty years after Germany began using nuclear power, the country is once again looking for a suitable nuclear waste storage facility. Search priorities include transparency, safety and scientific criteria.

Storage site Foto: Helmholtz Zentrum Muenchen/dapd.
Image: dapd

The German government, together with the opposition, hopes to approve a so-called depository site law for nuclear waste ahead of federal elections in September. The Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament, on Friday (June 28) will vote on the planned legislation.

After a nearly 35-year controversy over the suitability of a salt mine in Gorleben in northern Germany as a potential site for storing high-level nuclear waste, the search for a storage site will begin again. The bipartisan compromise is considered historic.

A 33-member commission will have until 2016 to establish the scientific criteria for the search for a long-term storage site in Germany. Politicians will make up half of the commission with the rest of the seats being filled by scientists, anti-nuclear activists and other representatives of society. A storage site could be found by 2031, but it is not likely to start operation before 2040.

Million-year storage

Finding a suitable location for the storage of nuclear waste poses a huge challenge, since it must be able to contain radiation for a million years. Experts believe deep underground locations in rock salt, clay or granite would be possible.

Michael Sailer Photo: Öko-Institut
Nuclear energy expert Michael Sailer says countries need to accept responsibilityImage: Öko-Institut e.V.

Salt is well suited for dissipating the heat of radioactive waste and enclosing it. But there is a risk of water seepage. While clay is not soluble in water, it has the disadvantage of lower thermal conductivity and stability. Granite, on the other hand, offers stability, but the waste containers would still also have to shield the radiation.

The aim of the proposed search method is to find particularly suitable storage sites in Germany and predict their shielding quality for more than a million years, based on the latest geological knowledge. So-called scenario analyses should help in estimating possible changes in groundwater, earth movements and erosion. “All of these scenarios must ensure that even with changes, no radiation seeps outside,” Michael Sailer, chairman of the German Waste Commission, told DW.

Huge storage costs

Improper disposal of nuclear waste poses, above all, a long-term risk to people and the environment - and generates high costs. The Asse nuclear waste site in Germany is an example. Nearly 126,000 barrels of nuclear waste were stored there between 1967 and 1978; some 14,000 barrels, however, lack accurate documentation about their contents.

On top of that is the choice of the salt mine, which is now widely viewed as a wrong decision. The penetration of about 12,000 liters of water daily threatens to contaminate the groundwater. The planned rescue of the barrels from the tunnels, which are in danger of collapsing, is risky, time-consuming and may even be no longer possible. But if an attempt is made, it could cost anywhere between 4 and 6 billion euros, according to SPD expert, Ute Vogt.

Sigmar Gabriel (.), and Peter Altmaier Foto: Julian Stratenschulte/Pool/dapd.
Environment Minister Peter Altmaier and SPD chairrman Sigmar Gabriel view the Asse siteImage: dapd

The worldwide practice of disposing radioactive waste in the sea is considered dangerous and was partially prohibited by an international agreement only in 1993. What has been dumped in the sea so far, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, is not highly radioactive nuclear waste. Greenpeace estimates that about 100,000 tons of such waste is at the bottom of seas around Europe alone. The long-term effects are still largely unknown.

Finland at the forefront

There is still no storage site for radioactive waste in the world. “The search for a storage site has also started up all over again in the US,” said Sailer. The country that is furthest along in its search is Finland, which has already approved construction of a depository, as well as Sweden, France and Switzerland, where the search for suitable sites is governed by law and is making progress.

Nuclear waste in barrels ©Gavin Newman/Greenpeace - 0005301 - (**)
Nuclear waste is being dumped at seaImage: Greenpeace/G.Newman

“These countries understood long ago that they have to assume responsibility,” said Sailer. “They have a transparent process with public participation.”

Switzerland has also completed a detailed study on the future of nuclear waste disposal costs, which could conceivably arise from its five nuclear power plants. The study was conducted by the Swiss association of nuclear power plants, Swissnuclear, and commissioned by the Swiss Federal Office of Energy (SFOE). According to the study, future storage costs could amount to about 12 billion Swiss francs or about 10 billion euros.

Who pays?

The forum Ecological-Social Market Economy has evaluated the Swiss study and, based on its findings, estimated the future costs for storing nuclear waste from Germany's eight deactivated and nine active nuclear power plants. According to conservative calculations by the researchers, Germany can reckon with storage costs of about 18 billion euros in the future.

German nuclear activist Foto: Holger Hollemann dpa/lni +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Germany has many anti-nuclear activistsImage: picture alliance/dpa

The German Atom Forum, comprised of all German nuclear power plant operators, intends to pay as little as possible for storage and rejected shouldering costs for the new site search. In their opinion´”there is no legal basis" for them to pay and all costs should be "financed by taxpayers."

Environment Minister Peter Altmaier has a different view. He intends to have the nuclear plant operators take responsibility for the waste they generate.