Waste storage issue continues to dog German nuclear debate

Saturday, July 26, 2008

GERMANY: With a return to nuclear power set to be a key election topic next year, a leaking waste site has refocused attention on safety, writes Derek Scally .

ST BARBARA has learned to be flexible in her job description.

For 40 years, a statue of the patron saint of miners has watched from an illuminated shrine in the wall of the Konrad mine shaft, one kilometre underground near the German city of Braunschweig.

Konrad served just a decade as a working iron ore mine, ending in 1976, but now it has been given a second life that will continue for centuries as Germany's first fully-regulated nuclear waste storage facility. It is due to open in 2014.

As the fortunes of nuclear power rise around the world, Konrad is one of the very few storage facilities being built to contain the hazardous waste that will result from this renaissance.

It is being constructed and will be operated by Germany's federal office for nuclear protection (BfS).

"We consider it a government responsibility to deal with this waste," said BfS president, Wolfram König. "We cannot allow our waste to be exported, nor can we accept imports; we have to take care of this ourselves, at home."

Visitors to the Konrad mine, near the town of Salzgitter, descend for three long minutes in a rickety old miners' lift before being whisked through the 40km-long (25ml) network of rounded, underground tunnels.

With varying temperatures of up to 30 degrees in some parts of the mine, a light breeze of dry, dusty air blows through tunnels strewn with mining detritus of a past life.

Huge boring machines move like mechanical moles in the dark tunnels, throwing out clouds of thick dust as they grind their way through the stone to widen passages in preparation for use as storage vaults.

"Considering Konrad never made any economic sense as a mine, it's good that it's still in operation, if in a different way," says one sweat-drenched drill operator, one of 130 who work three round-the-clock shifts.

Konrad will operate for 30 years, storing around 300,000 cubic metres of low- to medium- contaminated waste.

While other nuclear countries dispose of this kind of waste - such as laboratory equipment and clothing - in shallow depots, Germany favours a more conservative approach.

The waste is compressed and sealed in barrels, which are sealed in concrete in larger oblong containers.

They are, in turn, stacked in underground chambers, which, when full, will be sealed and also filled with concrete.

Konrad will have cost €2 billion by the time it is scheduled to open in 2014, nearly 40 years after it was first proposed, and after a quarter-century of safety checks and legal challenges.

So a solution is finally in sight for the 270,000m3 of low-risk waste expected to be produced by 2040.

This comprises 90 per cent of Germany's nuclear waste, but contributes just 0.1 per cent of the total radiation inventory.

German authorities remain deadlocked over a definitive solution for its 544m3 of high-risk waste, responsible for 99.9 per cent of radioactive inventory, which will rise to at least 24,0000m3 by 2040.

It's not just a German problem: the IAEA, the UN nuclear watchdog, says that over 300,000 tonnes of nuclear waste exists worldwide.

With no permanent underground storage facilities in existence, most of this high-risk nuclear waste has been stored for decades in above-ground "temporary" storage sites.

As the renaissance of nuclear energy gains momentum, answers to the decades-old storage question are becoming ever more urgent.

A study last week by the OECD found that there are more nuclear reactors being planned and currently under construction in Europe, 13 and 14 respectively, than the 12 being run down.

Last year, a commission of Britain's Royal Academy said that that a revival in nuclear energy was "morally unsupportable" without a long-term answer to the waste-storage question.

Germany has debated the nuclear question with ideological and emotional fervour for decades and it seemed the last word was spoken seven years ago. The then Social Democrat-Green government forced energy operators to agree to phase out nuclear power entirely: 17 reactors are still running, with the last scheduled to leave the grid in 2021.

But that deal is under fire from Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU): she promises to repeal the 2001 deal if she wins next year's general election.

Dr Merkel could be on to a political winner: a survey earlier this month suggested that post-Chernobyl fears about nuclear accidents have receded in German minds, replaced by concerns about soaring energy prices and climate change.

The survey, in Stern magazine, suggested that Germans are now evenly divided on the issue: some 46 per cent said they favoured extending the lives of nuclear reactors - exactly the same number as wanted all plants to close as planned by 2021.

Regardless of the future of nuclear power in Germany, even nuclear critics agree that permanent storage is needed for the high-risk waste produced in the last decades, and until the proposed shutdown.

Yet the most likely site for permanent storage, a former salt mine near the town of Gorleben, has been mired in controversy for decades with no final decision in sight.

Meanwhile, concerns about the suitability of salt mines as nuclear depots have been revived after alarming revelations about one such mine, just 20km from Konrad.

The Asse salt mine was converted into a storage depot for nuclear waste in 1965.

Though only intended as a research and testing facility, Asse somehow now contains 125,000 barrels of waste, including 100 tonnes of uranium and 12 kilograms of plutonium.

In recent weeks it has emerged that water has been seeping into the mine for 20 years and is now just 100 metres from the nuclear waste, something the operator tried to keep quiet.

The flow of water has reached 12,000 litres a day and already 80,000 litres of caesium-contaminated water has been illegally pumped into a separate chamber.

Engineers are now working feverishly to prevent the collapse of the roof of the mine.

"For decades they told us there was no danger and that the mine was dry," said local farmer Ursula Kleiber.

"Now it comes out that the whole facility is in danger of collapsing and nobody knows if the radioactive soup will contaminate the region."

The most unsettling part of the scandal is that the operator of the facility is the publicly-funded Helmholz scientific research institute.

BfS officials worry that the Asse scandal could threaten the time- table and growing public acceptance of Konrad.

"The biggest problem we face on the nuclear question is public suspicion, arising from the many lies told in the past about safety," says BfS president König.

"That Asse, as a state-run facility, didn't meet its own legal guidelines completely undermines credibility."

The nuclear question is already gearing up to be one of the key issues in Germany's general election next year.

Chancellor Merkel makes the case for retaining the nuclear option as part of an "energy mix" to secure supplies and prices.

But she has yet to broach the long-term consequences: reversing the 2001 agreement will also lift the agreement limiting the amounts of nuclear waste German reactors can produce.

The motto of Konrad, Germany's first nuclear storage facility is pragmatic: "We have something to get rid of, but nothing to hide."

But if Germany returns to generating nuclear power - and nuclear waste - the motto of the new nuclear era might well be: we have something to get rid of, but nowhere to put it.

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