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19th Jul 2019

Interview

German jibe at 'dirty' Swedish nuclear waste site

  • Mock nuclear waste at the German town of Gorleben (Photo: Peter Teffer)

The chairman of Germany's nuclear waste committee sharply criticised Sweden's proposed site for radioactive waste on Tuesday (19 January).

“I have seldom seen such a disorderly and also dirty situation as there,” Michael Mueller told a group of journalists at a seminar organised by non-profit organisation Clean Energy Wire.

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Sweden is planning to store highly radioactive waste underneath the site of a nuclear plant in the coastal town of Forsmark, around 100 km north of Stockholm.

Last year, Finland approved the construction of an underground repository at the island of Olkiluoto, and other countries have yet to begin the process of selecting a site where radioactive waste can be stored permanently.

Michael Mueller leads Germany's commission on the storage of highly radioactive waste materials, which is in charge of defining criteria on the basis of which the German government can decide where to build its long-term storage facilities for radioactive waste.

He said a European approach to the problem was preferable but unlikely.

“I think it would be good if there was a European solution, but only if everybody accepts the standard that we go for the best possible solution. But if I look at Europe now, I see that the positions diverge so widely that I find it very hard to imagine a European solution is possible,” he said.

“I can tell you, with our commission we have travelled to different countries. What I saw in Sweden, I didn't really find this very convincing. Even less in Finland, where it seems the solution is you buy a peninsula, you start drilling and see what happens. This is nothing that would be possible in Germany.”

Daunting task

Mueller has a long political career behind him. He was an MP for the centre-left social democratic party from 1983 to 2009.

The task his committee is facing is daunting.

After a previous selection of a permanent nuclear waste site in Gorleben, in the Lower-Saxony region, was withdrawn following persistent local protest, the federal states and the German Bundestag decided to set up a committee to find criteria before selecting a site.

Part of the committee's job is to create public trust.

“Gorleben was not chosen because there were scientific reasons for saying this was the best option. It was chosen because at the time it was basically the poorest district in all of Germany,” he noted.

“It was located close to the border with GDR, so not much opposition was expected. But even while back then there was a lot of technological information, the decision for Gorleben was entirely political.

“I don't think the problem is technology. The technical information is there. What is not there, is a foundation of trust. This is what we are working on.”

Plan for one million years

While Germany has decided to shut down all of its nuclear power plants by the year 2022. The legacy of radioactive waste poses bigger problems.

“The repository to be created is to be for the next one million years,” said Mueller.

This single feature of the task makes it astronomically difficult to tackle the issue like any other political problem.

“Just go back 500 years. Nobody would have predicted that mobility would be as it is today and that digitisation would have been possible,” noted Mueller.

Imagine the time-scale of one million years.

A million years ago in Europe, the Neanderthal was not even yet around.

Since we cannot predict the future, it is impossible to know what is the most safe and cost-efficient solution, and nobody will be around to check.

“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. Or are we looking for something that is final, with no retrievability?”

Even if retrievability is chosen as option, the question then is: “Do we want it for 100 years? 200 years?”

“We will give and develop criteria for potential solutions. This should combine all of the scientific knowledge that we have today.

“If you ask me, I would never ever even speak of final storage. I can't tell you what is going to happen in 100 and 200 years. But we are going to look for the best possible solution as we believe it is from the point of view of today.”

But even on a more limited timescale, the waste storage process poses problems, like how to organise coherent participation of the local community that lives near the storage.

“How do you organise public participation in this storage process, that takes so extremely long? If you take Germany and the storage process, we assume it will take around 80 years from planning to the end of storage. How do you come up with a system for participation that can last and function for such a long time?”

Deadline doubts

The committee is due to publish its report in July 2016, but Mueller has his doubts about the quality of the report, for which drafting will begin soon.

He noted that when the committee started its work, it included three premiers of German states as its members.

“As a result of this high-level participation, we only met once per month, which to me is not enough,” he said.

“I have, like nobody else in German politics, experience with such commissions. The report depends very much on whether there is enough trust and if a joint understanding of what is at stake can develop between the members. I am not sure whether this is the case for this commission. I think we spent too little time together," he said.

“I hope we can stick to that deadline [of July 2016], but seriously I am very unsure whether there is enough trust, mutual trust, to get our work done.”

Feature

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