Why Germany is digging up its nuclear waste
By Peter Teffer
It seemed such a good idea at the time. At least, to the German politicians in charge.
But in hindsight, the Asse II salt mine should never have been used in the 1960s and 1970s as a site to dump nuclear waste, said Ingo Bautz of the Federal Office for Radiation Protection.
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“Today, nobody would choose this mine to place radioactive waste,” Bautz told journalists during a recent tour of the mine, in the north-western state of Lower Saxony.
“People were thinking in different terms in those times. The plan was to increase the use of nuclear power.”
To anti-nuclear activists, Asse is a prime example of government not listening to citizens' concerns. "Incidents were predicted," said Wolfgang Ehmke, activist in the Gorleben region.
But the waste had to be stored somewhere, so the voices that warned against selecting Asse II were ignored.
“The potential risks for the future were accepted,” Bautz said, during a recent press visit to the mine organised by Clean Energy Wire, a non-profit group supported by the Mercator and European Climate foundations.
Road signs, deep underground
Until 1978, low and intermediate-level radioactive waste was stored in Asse II, the only such site in Germany.
Ten years later, the operator of the mine discovered leaks of radioactive brine. But it was not until 2008, when media reported about it, that the leaks became public knowledge.
The German government took control of the mine and tasked the Federal Office for Radiation Protection with its decommissioning.
The office concluded that the risk of groundwater contamination was too big, and the only truly safe option was to retrieve all the waste from the mine and store it elsewhere. In all, 126,000 containers filled with contaminated clothes, paper and equipment were stored in Asse, the office said.
“This task is very difficult,” said Bautz, who joined journalists to travel into the mine, 658m below the surface.
The lift plunged to the bottom at 36km/h. Inside the mine, the temperature was about 30C even though it was freezing above ground.
The mine is so large that workers have to use cars to get around. In one tunnel an LED road sign typically found in residential areas tells drivers to watch their speed.
The car this website was driven in hit speeds of 22km/h, which is apparently within the limit, judging by the smiley face displayed on the LED.
The cars had to be cut in half, transported in the elevator vertically, and put back together underground.
They can operate for decades, but once the vehicles are returned to the service they would become useless. While underground, the air is dry enough for the car not to be harmed by the high saturation of salt. But once back on the Autobahn, erosion would allow holes to be poked through the bodywork within a few weeks.
During the 1906 construction of the mine, it could not have been foreseen that cars would be used to get around, let alone that it would be used to store radioactive waste.
"We have to retrofit the mine," said Bautz, noting that everything had to be invented for what is a unique task.
Since the mine is over a century old, it needs to be protected against a collapse or flooding. It will also need another lift to use for retrieving the waste.
And because of safety regulations regarding evacuation, only 120 people can be down in the mine at the same time. Workers are monitored for any exposure to radiation.
“We have to guarantee the safety of the workforce and the population,” noted Bautz.
The Federal Office is spending €140 million a year for the Asse clean-up.
In the European Union, each member state is responsible for its own nuclear waste. There are some common rules though.
In 2011, the EU adopted a rule obliging each country that has produced nuclear waste to have policies on how to manage their waste. Last August, all member states were due to report about their national programmes for the first time.
Germany told the commission it planned to put "all types of radioactive waste in deep geological disposal facilities with the aim to guarantee isolation from the biosphere in the long term, thus ensuring the safety of man and the environment without any need for maintenance".
Environment state secretary Jochen Flasbarth, who described the situation in Asse II as “disastrous”, told journalists in Berlin that the current plan was to store the Asse waste, once retrieved, with the high-level radioactive waste for which the government is still searching a site.
'This is not Chernobyl'
A special committee set up to determine criteria, based on which a final storage site will be selected, is due to present its findings in July 2016. But its chair, Michael Mueller, has raised doubts whether this deadline can be met.
His committee is also debating whether the site for highly radioactive waste should be accessible after 100 or 200 years, or if they should just to lock it up and throw away the key.
“We discuss for example: should there be retrievability [of the waste], because there might be a point in time when we have more knowledge and we come up with another solution,” said Mueller of the criteria committee.
The Asse case shows how difficult it can be to undo a decision related to nuclear waste storage. It will take longer to retrieve the waste than it did to dump it.
At the same time, the Asse issue is not as daunting as the challenge to find a final repository. And while there are considerable risks involved, those should “not be exaggerated”, said Bautz.
“This is not Chernobyl or Fukushima,” he added.
Still, the Federal Office for Radiation Protection does not expect to begin retrieval before 2033.
That means the Asse clean-up will be a legacy that lasts well beyond 2022, the year in which Germany's last nuclear power plant is due to be shut down.
This is second part in a two-part series about Germany's nuclear waste. Part one was about how Gorleben refused to be the country's permanent waste repository.