COMMENT: Increased cancer incidence in Germany’s Lower Saxony linked to old radwaste storage facility

In and of themselves, the data on cancer incidence in the area around Asse-II are not subject to debate, as they come from the Lower Saxony Oncological Disease Registry. The disposal of radioactive waste in the abandoned salt mine Asse-II was an experiment conducted in the 1960s and 1970s. Altogether, 126,000 barrels and containers with radioactive waste are in long-term storage at the site. Those among the local population who have developed cancers may have been Asse-II employees whose jobs were related to managing the waste, or members of their families. Since 1988, ground waters have been penetrating the dry-storage facility, which apparently resulted in corrosion eating through the metal barrels and release of dangerous radionuclides into the surrounding area.

Authorities and environmentalists dispute the cause

While the government of the Land of Lower Saxony acknowledges the increased rate of cancer and leukaemia incidence around the town of Wolfenbüttel, near which Asse-II is located, the authorities still deny that the troubling trend has anything to do with the proximity to the radioactive waste storage facility.

But environmentalists and politicians are certain that whether or not a direct link between the cancers and Asse-II is obvious, the situation more than warrants a closer scrutiny. A November report by Euronews quotes Claudia Roth from the German Green Party as saying: “Whatever the case, this is such an over-proportional rise of cancer illnesses that one cannot return to ‘nuclear business as usual,’ but there must be a reaction on all levels, there must be inquiries, and one must draw [conclusions].”

[picture1 {Containers with radioactive waste in the former salt mine Asse-II.}]
Manfred Kracht, a representative of Aktion Atommüllfreie Asse (Action for Nuclear-Free Asse, AАА), told Bellona in an email correspondence that while at present it will be “difficult to prove a connection between emissions from the operations at Asse and illnesses in the population,” his organisation and other groups active in the area around the nuclear waste dump are “worried about the increased cancer cases in the district.” Environmentalists intend to take a thorough look at the possible link.

“Within the next weeks there will be investigations to find the ill people of the anonymous study in order to explore possible causes of the cancer. […] To [rule out] possible influences of radioactive emissions, the AAA [deems necessary] to check the current measurement system of air and water samples and to modify it, if necessary,” Kracht said.

Lower Saxony’s health care authorities will undertake a study to look into the causes of the increased cancer rates in the area.

“The study will take several months,” Elke Bruns-Philipps from the Lower Saxony Health Department was quoted by as saying. She added that it could not be ruled out that the cancer incidence in local men may have to do with the patients’ employment at Asse-II.

Unfortunately, because radiation is invisible and radiation-related illnesses are hard to prove as pinpointing the causes involves a range of variables and probabilities, nuclear proponents tend to use this lack of direct proof to further their agenda. Nuclear authorities are often heard saying that radiation is only a factor and that drawing a direct causal link between radiation and a specific disease is impossible.

Yet, cancer and leukaemia statistics – both in the case of Asse-II and the 2007 report on leukaemia incidence near German nuclear power plants – would be at least an indirect proof that nuclear sites may be responsible for rising cancer rates in populations residing in close vicinity.

Hot on the heels of these disturbing revelations, Lower Saxony’s social-democrat and leftist parliament members demanded that cancer risks and incidence statistics be given closer attention around other nuclear sites – such as nuclear waste storage facilities in Morsleben and Gorleben, as well as nuclear power plants. In Germany, just as in Russia, each nuclear power plant operates a storage facility for spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste generated as a result of that plant’s operations. Such storage sites, too, present a hazard.

Cancer incidence rates 2.25 times above the norm – how high a rise is that?
Reports on the findings near Asse-II say cancer rates are more than double the national average near this radioactive waste dump. Even though in absolute numbers, the figures are not strikingly large, the deviation from the national norm has been established beyond a doubt.
[picture2 {A view of the Asse-II repository in Lower Saxony.}]
If cancer incidence in the area were to comport with statistical averages across Germany, then the rates for the municipality of Asse would correspond to one new cancer case per year – or eight new cases in eight years, between 2002 and 2008. However, 2.25 times more cases were registered during that period in the area – namely, 18 new cases, including twelve cancers in men and six thyroid cancers in women.

At a first glance, the supposedly modest figure – eighteen, altogether – should not become a cause for increased concern, but two factors call for attention here.

For one, the recent rise in cancers near Asse-II may only be the tip of the iceberg: If these illnesses were caused by leaking radionuclides from the dump, then residents nearby will continue to be exposed to radiation-caused cancers for a very long period of time – hundreds, if not thousands of years ahead. The absolute number of new cases may then grow to seriously disturbing proportions in the tens of thousands of new victims. Among the radioactive substances stored in barrels in the former salt pit at Asse-II is plutonium, an element with a half-life period of around 24,000 years.

Secondly, the ethical side of this problem cannot be overlooked, either. However seemingly small the numbers, the suffering and, possibly, early and painful deaths may have been caused by the inability of the nuclear industry of a country as prosperous and technologically and scientifically advanced as Germany to ensure safe storage of its nuclear and radioactive waste. Just imagining that the fate of the terminally ill befalls one’s loved one is enough for anyone to realise that nuclear industry does not have a right to experiment with the safety of its processes and the waste it produces – whether a direct link has been proven or not.

Asse-II, the radioactive waste storage dump

The Asse-II facility is more accurately called “Asse-II Research Pit.” The pit is located in Lower Saxony, near the village of Remlingen in the municipal district of Wolfenbüttel. The idea to use the former salt mine to dispose of radioactive waste was proposed in the 1960s by the Federal Ministry for Scientific Research and Technology, now the Helmholtz Centre, Munich. The Helmholtz Centre was also the facility’s operator company until 2009.
[picture3 {Asse-II accommodates 124,494 barrels with low-level radioactive waste buried at depths of 725 and 750 metres (marker 2) and 1,293 barrels with medium-level radioactive waste at a depth of 511 metres (marker 1). Since 1998, ground waters have been seeping into the shaft (marker 3), washing waste out of the barrels and forming what could be called an underground radioactive lake (marker 4).}]
Between 1967 and 1978, dumped into the pit were: 124,494 barrels with low-level radioactive waste, to a combined radioactivity level of 2.8 petabecquerels (2.8*1015 becquerels), buried at depths of 725 and 750 metres; and 1,293 barrels with medium-level radioactive waste, to a combined radioactivity value of 5 petabecquerels (5*1015 becquerels), at a depth of 511 metres. Altogether, the waste contains over 100 tonnes of uranium, 87 tonnes of thorium, and over 11 kilograms of plutonium. Most of the barrels were simply dropped into the shaft and covered with a layer of salt on top.

The dangerous leaks

The idea to dispose of radioactive waste in salt-bearing formations arose from an assumption that salt would prevent water from making contact with the storage barrels. Were that to prove correct, the waste might have been isolated from the impact of the surrounding environment for a long period of time. However, reality has shown that assumption to be wrong.

The Asse-II operator company insisted that the facility was “dry and safe.” But the layers of salt that remained in the mine proved inadequate as a natural safety barrier. In 1988, ground water-and-salt solutions were found to be seeping into the pit at its southern perimeter – to a rate of around 12,000 litres a day. The leak has been ongoing for over 20 years. Because of the resulting corrosion, the barrels, which had not been designed to withstand contact with water, proved a poor defence against the seeping water, which has been washing radioactive waste out of the barrels. An underground pond with a radioactive salt mix has formed below the former mine, at a level of 975 metres.

Some of that dangerous solution may have been leaking back into the surrounding environment, causing an increased rate of cancer incidence in the district.

Can anything be done about the leaking storage facility?

The leaks at Asse-II have long been a source of worry for the local authorities. The operating company, the Helmholtz Centre, has suggested a concept of “wet mothballing,” which implies flooding the pit with a magnesium chloride solution, in the hopes that the solution will solidify and keep the waste safe from contact with ground waters. Environmentalists are concerned, however, that this will only accelerate the rate of corrosion of the barrels and, furthermore, that in the conditions where water is constantly seeping into the mine, the company’s proposal makes little sense anyway.

In September 2008, Germany’s federal government made a decision to transfer the facility under the purview of a different entity. The responsibility for the leaking site was placed on the shoulders of the Federal Authority for Radiation Protection (Bundesamt für Strahlenschutz, BfS).
[picture4 {Nuclear Heritage’s infoflyer on the Asse-II repository.}]
According to AAA’s Kracht, the radiation protection authority is now researching ways to safeguard the repository.

“The BfS is currently [running] tests for the planned retrieval of the radioactive waste in the former salt mine. The AAA is concerned about the time schedule of the retrieval, i.e. the [three-year] test phase,” Kracht told Bellona. “It is still possible that the option of complete backfilling (flooding of the salt mine including all of the stored atomic waste) will be chosen because of political or financial reasons or because of the [unstable] state of the mine as an emergency measure. According to the BfS, the time frame for each solution is probably very limited.”

It looks as if a safe solution will be hard to find to secure the leaking storage facility, while any of the solutions currently under consideration may involve significant financial costs.

Meanwhile, the anti-nuclear movement has grown into a considerable force in today’s Germany, and the inability of the German nuclear industry to solve the problem of dangerous nuclear waste compels more and more people to take action.

“Fortunately, the people around Asse will no longer tolerate lies and empty promises. A lot of people are participating in action groups and there are many activities, for instance information events and information stands,” Kracht told Bellona.

Information about Asse-II and its problems can also be found in an infoflyer (download PDF to right) distributed by the anti-nuclear network Nuclear Heritage.

No safe solution for radioactive waste

As it stands, the world has not yet been able to come up with a safe technology that would see radioactive waste securely isolated from the surrounding environment for the entire period that the waste remains hazardous. Such attempts – naïve, in environmentalists’ view – as disposing of radioactive waste in geological formations like a salt mine have so far failed to bring the desired result.
[picture5 {A caricature by E. Schröder depicting German Chancellor Angela Merkel and nuclear waste. The punchline translates as: “Angie, we’ll cope with the waste, too!”}]
Falk Beyer, a researcher who has studied nuclear repositories in Germany, told Bellona: “Germany [has been] trying hard since the 1960s to find a solution for the radioactive waste. Both repositories – Asse II in Lower Saxony and Morsleben in Sachsen-Anhalt – [have] failed and are a catastrophe today.”

Furthermore, Beyer said, studies have shown that other repositories, in Gorleben and Schacht Konrad, are “geologically not suitable for […] long-time safe storage of nuclear waste.” It is possible, Beyer said, that “there won’t be a safe solution for this material at any time.”

If any good is to come out of Germany’s experience it is probably the lesson that other nations, such as Russia, could learn from its mistakes. Unfortunately, a layman’s understanding of how stable or reliable such geological formations as a salt pit or a granite rock can be is only partially correct. The same length of time that is needed to seal nuclear and radioactive waste from the natural environment may turn out to be enough for a granite rock to deteriorate or a salt mine to fill with ground water, as has been happening at Asse-II.

The statements made by the Russian State Nuclear Corporation Rosatom – which is looking to build geological repositories for radioactive waste in Krasnoyarsk and Murmansk Regions in Russia – that such sites will be safe and reliable are based on no solid scientific findings. But if Russia’s new and much-criticised draft Law on Management of Radioactive Waste is passed in the version proposed by Rosatom, it will be a Rosatom structure that will operate such facilities in Russia. The risk is that, absent of strict control over the nuclear authority on the part of the state or the public – a situation Rosatom has enjoyed ever since the corporation was first created in Soviet Russia as a ministry – dozens of radioactive waste storage facilities may eventually be built in the country, with no guarantees that they will not, for instance, start developing leaks like Germany’s Asse-II.

On April 4, 2007, German environmentalists signed a so-called Remlingen Declaration, which says, in part: “The catastrophic experiences [of] Asse-II must have consequences for any further dealings with nuclear energy. Whoever takes these experiences serious, must come to the conclusion that […] further production of nuclear waste is fundamentally irresponsible.”

Andrey Ozharovsky

Maria Kaminskaya