20-year-long German nuclear leak scandal engulfs country and disturbs Europe

Thomas Nilsen/Bellona

Publish date: September 8, 2008

German Prime Minister Angela Merkel called Sunday for a decision on where to store radioactive material after it was confirmed last week that one of the country’s nuclear waste storage deposits in Lower Saxony has been leaking for over two decades.

The confirmation of the leak at the Asse II facility – which holds 126,000 barrels of waste – by the German government last Tuesday, which came under pressure from the media, sparked a heated debate on where Germany should store its radioactive waste.

The revelations have fueled further arguments between anti-nuclear environmentalists and citizens who are counting on a phase out of German nuclear power by 2021, and Merkel, who is a proponent of nuclear energy and whose conservative backers are calling for reversing the planned nuclear phase out.

Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel said last week his ministry would assume responsibility for the leakage at the Asse II facility in the state of Lower Saxony after he attacked the operators for presiding over years of leaks of radioactive waste.

“There is nothing secure to be found in the facility,” said Gabriel. “This is the most problematic facility in Europe.”
Another report showed barrels of waste were leaking at the former salt mine, which was converted in the 1960s into a pilot project for a planned permanent nuclear storage facility at Gorleben, also in Lower Saxony, Planet Ark environmental news wire reported.

In a Sunday interview on German Radio Three, Merkel said decisions about where to store radioactive waste were needed Planet Ark said.

"We do also need to make progress in the storage of highly radioactive material. It’s about atomic plants. A moratorium has been agreed for Gorleben and of course decisions must be made on how things go from here," she told the Radio station.

The leak
Radioactive leaks from the nuclear waste deposit Asse II near Braunschweig in Lower Saxony, some 225 kilometers southwest of Berlin, were first discovered in 1988, the IPS newswire reported.

The state-owned Helmholtz Institute for Scientific Research, which operates the centre, officially admitted the leaks only Jun. 16th under pressure from the German press.

Helmholtz spokesman Heinz-Joerg Haury told German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung that researchers "did not consider that the leaks were worth a declaration to the press. We did not have the feeling that the public would be interested in knowing that radioactive brine is leaking in Asse II."

Asse II, a former salt mine, is the oldest nuclear waste deposit in Germany. The abandoned mine was transformed into a deposit for nuclear waste in 1967, following the scientific hypothesis that rock salt pits are the best geological structure to store radioactive waste.

But in 1988, radioactive brine started to leak through the mine’s walls. The site operator never informed the public.

Many thousands of  barrels in the mine have been overturned and are rusted through – and many were already damaged before they were buried. Water runs into the mine and ground water could be radioactively contaminated as a result. Further, the entire mine could collapse by 2014.

bodytextimage_Nils-Boehmer-bredde-lite.jpg Photo: (foto: tone foss aspevoll/bellona)

“This shows how problematic handling radioactive waste is now that one of Europe’s most democratic and well-regulated countries is handling it so badly,” said Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s nuclear physicist.

Scandal ill timed for IEA’s plug for nuclear energy
The scandal comes at the same time as the International Energy Agency is recommending the European Union lay more effort in the direction of expanding nuclear power – which is a highly controversial matter within the EU. The IEA proposes that the European Commission will find more force in energy policy. On Friday, EU Member States voted on what energy sources they wanted for themselves.

Many EU nations have undertaken to phase out nuclear power. Germany’s 17 reactors are planned to shut down by 2021. The country’s Social Democratic movement are solidly behind the shut down, but  Merkel’s Christian Democratic party will not support the resolution.
Crisis meeting
On Thursday, the German government was called in for a crisis meeting to reach some solution on how to handle the nuclear leak scandal. After the meeting, it was clear that the answer was being shifted from Germany’s defence ministry to its Environmental Ministry. It will be Germany’s radiation safety authority that will now take over the operations of the mine were the radioactive waste was deposited.

Yet, still no one knows what to do with the 126,000 tons of waste. Given that one allows it to lay, the salt mine can end up becoming an enormous environmental catastrophe. Meanwhile, there are many barrels of waste in the mine that are in such bad condition that they would perhaps not even stand up to being transported.

Such an operation will likely cost billions of Euro, and at present, there is no other waste dump in Germany that could accept the waste from Asse II.
Ad hoc waste deposit
From 1967 until 1978, more than 126,000 barrels of low and medium radioactive waste were laid into the salt mine at Asse II. The mine also contains nine kilograms of highly poisonous plutonium as well as a number of spent fuel assemblies.

As German authorities only began keeping accurate records of the mine’s contents in 1971, it is impossible to say with total accuracy how many barrels are stored in the leaking mine.

The Asse II salt mine was closed in 1964 and became an experimental nuclear waste repository in 1967. The goal was to discover whether rock salt pits were a good place to store radioactive waste.

The closed-down salt mine ended up becoming in practice a waste dump for all of Germany within 11 years. Nuclear waste from all West German reactors was harboured at Asse II during this period.

20 years of leakage
German Environmental Minister Gabriel told the German newspaper Bild that, “the facility has as many holes as Swiss cheese.”

Radioactive brine has been leaking through the walls of the mine since 1988, the IPS news agency reported, but facility operators decided not to alert the public.

In June this year, some 80,000 liters of radioactive brine had accumulated in the mine – eight times more than the limit permitted. The brine will have to be pumped into a deeper level of the mine. Calculations indicate the some 30 liters of radioactive brine has been leaking in the every day.

Stern reactions

The new revelations about Germany’s old nuclear waste has incensed many Germans. Renate Kunste, leader of The Greens in German parliament, has decried the Helmholtz Institute for Scientific Research  as well as the state company in Lower Saxony that have taken responsibility for the mine.

May German newspapers have also reacted strongly. Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote, according to Speigel Online, that, “Asse-II, which was supposed to be secure until the end of time, is no longer secure. And if it’s not possible to secure relatively harmless, weakly radioactive waste, how can we trust in the secure disposal of fuel rods?”

Håvard Lundberg and Charles Digges reported this article.