How Gorleben refused to be Germany's nuclear dump
By Peter Teffer
Bonnie is quite the lucky dog.
As long as a former salt mine in the Gorleben municipality is under consideration to be transformed into the final storage site for Germany's nuclear waste, she will almost certainly have a weekly walk in the woods.
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“We have done this since 2009 every Sunday,” Bonnie's owner, 75-year-old Doris Pechtl from the nearby village Krautze, told EUobserver on a recent Sunday visit.
“Almost every Sunday. Sometimes we are on holiday, but I think we participate 45 times a year.”
Together with her husband Josef, she is part of the group of anti-nuclear activists who hold a weekly protest walk in the woods and by the mine.
“And we always bring Bonnie,” she said.
Whatever the weather. On the day of the EUobserver's visit, the temperature was dipping below freezing point.
“If we stop coming here every week, it will not be long before we stop coming here altogether,” she added.
Gorleben, in the state Lower Saxony, has been a hub of Germany's anti-nuclear movement for decades. A movement which helped bring about the decision to phase out nuclear power altogether.
But that is another story.
Yes, the German decision to have the last nuclear power plant shut down by 2022 was a victory for those who say: “Atomkraft? Nein danke.”
But the phase-out does not solve the problem that may haunt Germany much longer beyond that date. It is the question that Europe's other nuclear nations also face: what to do with the nuclear waste?
On a recent press trip organised by the not-for-profit Clean Energy Wire – which is supported by the Mercator and European Climate foundations – this website was introduced to two sites related to nuclear waste storage: Gorleben and Asse. (More about Asse in part 2 of this series)
Both could easily be included in a potential European manual How Not To Choose A Nuclear Waste Storage Site.
Miscalculations and false starts
Like other countries that embraced nuclear power in the 1950s and 1960s, Germany needs to find a place where its radioactive waste can stay out of harm's way for a million years.
Germany has been thinking about this unfathomable conundrum for decades, after making something of a false start.
More than 40 years ago, the former salt mine in Gorleben was selected as the place to store nuclear waste permanently, without much dialogue with the locals.
Gorleben, a municipality of around 600 souls, was near the West German border with what was then the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR).
“Gorleben was not chosen because there were scientific reasons for saying this was the best option,” said Michael Mueller, chair of a recently appointed commission in charge of formulating criteria for finding a nuclear waste storage site.
“It was chosen because at the time it was basically the poorest district in all of Germany. It was located close to the border with GDR, so not much opposition was expected.”
But that was a grave miscalculation.
Demonstrations, clashes with the police, a brief self-proclaimed Free Republic: the 1970s saw continuous protests against storing nuclear waste in Gorleben.
This included protests against the temporary storage, which the population was not able to stop. An above-ground facility now holds 113 containers of radioactive waste.
Infographic by Clean Energy Wire
A total of 1,000 containers is expected to have been produced by the end of Germany's nuclear phase-out, and all of them will have to be stored safely somewhere permanently.
But not in Gorleben, said Wolfgang Ehmke, of the group Buergerinitiative Umweltschutz Luechow-Dannenberg (Citizens Initiative Environmental Protection Luechow-Dannenberg).
Nimby and proud
Local protest against being selected as a solution for a national problem is often disparagingly referred to as Nimbyism, an acronym derived from “not in my backyard”.
But Ehmke has embraced the term.
“Nimby has a positive connotation for me,” he told journalists in Gasthaus Wiese, a local guesthouse that hosts the activists every week.
“Only once a site has been selected, do you have a local population that is affected, who then become politically interested,” said Ehmke.
The fight against nuclear has become something of a lifestyle for some of the inhabitants of Gorleben and the wider district Luechow-Dannenberg.
Many families have put a wooden yellow X, a symbol of anti-nuclear protest, in front of their house.
Faced with so much protest, the decision for Gorleben was withdrawn in 2000. Michael Mueller's nuclear waste committee, based in Berlin, is now setting up criteria on the basis of which a new site will be selected.
But the Gorleben activists are suspicious. The underground part of the salt mine is not being closed, so they fear that the committee is just an administrative ruse.
“At the end of the day, they will come back to Gorleben,” said activist Klaus Longmuss.
“People hope the resistance will die down in 20 to 30 years, so that the mine can be reopened,” added Wolfgang Ehmke.
Mueller, of the criteria committee, said that he personally was against selecting Gorleben.
“In Gorleben, so many mistakes have been made in the past, that excluding it would be an act of atonement. But I know that is not an argument that will convince politicians,” noted Mueller.
For his part, federal state secretary for environment Jochen Flasbarth told journalists in Berlin that he understood there was “mistrust” about the process, but stressed that Gorleben could not be excluded beforehand.
“We would not go through such a long and very intense and also very costly process if there would not be a commitment that we really want to select the safest site possible,” the deputy minister noted.
“We cannot and must not exclude Gorleben because this would immediately cause a huge debate at any other site in Germany if it would be selected. People would argue, exactly as [the people in] Gorleben did in the past, this is a political decision.”
Gorleben's 'big family'
Meanwhile in Gorleben, there is little desire to leave the area.
“There are a couple of people who sold their houses, because they didn't want to live near the repositories,” said Wolfgang Ehmke. “People employed by the nuclear industry bought them.”
“But a lot of people actually moved here to join our cause, our resistance.”
Tina Wiese, who works in the guesthouse frequented by the activists, grew up 50km away, but moved to the area 20 years ago because her husband lived here – on the Sunday we meet, she had her 43rd birthday.
“As a child, my older sisters would always take me here to protest,” Wiese said.
How does she feel about living near an area where 113 containers of nuclear waste are stored above ground, with the possibility that even more may come to be stored underground?
“You try not to think about it,” she said. And besides, she feels “connected” to the region.
“This area has many positive sides: its good nature, and the feeling of being part of a big family,” noted Wiese. “Besides, there is no place in the world where there is no danger.”
This is part one in a two-part series about Germany's nuclear waste. Tomorrow, in part two, we look at the mistakes made in the Asse II mine