Nuclear wastes in Gorleben salt mine, Germany

Abyss of Uncertainty: Germany’s Homemade Nuclear Waste Disaster Spiegal online, By Michael Fröhlingsdorf, Udo Ludwig and Alfred Weinzier, 21 Feb 13,  Some 126,000 barrels of nuclear waste have been dumped in the Asse II salt mine over the last 50 years. German politicians are pushing for a law promising their removal. But the safety, technical and financial hurdles are enormous, and experts warn that removal is more dangerous than leaving them put……

Germany’s Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) has been responsible for Asse since 2009. This is an agency that was originally founded to monitor things such as the safety of workers in nuclear research facilities. In early 2010, the federal government ordered the BfS to assess whether the radioactive waste in the Asse mine can be retrieved. The agency estimated that it would take three years to prepare the project. Most recently, the BfS said it would need 10 years for the fact-finding phase alone.

The BfS still has no detailed concept for the retrieval, no timetable, no script that maps out the technical procedures. It’s essentially a flight by the seat of the pants, and problems are encountered for which no solutions have been found anywhere in the world….

“What we intend to do here has never been done before,” says Jens Köhler, the technical director at Asse.

Massive Environmental Scandal

The decision to retrieve the drums was primarily motivated by politics. It was taken because politicians have a bad conscience about how they have treated their constituents. The public was originally informed that Asse was merely being used to “research” how radioactive waste reacts in a final repository. But then nuclear power plants, nuclear research facilities, the German military, medical institutions and industry used the old mine as a dump for all manner of contaminated waste. The federal government collected disposal fees, and for decades ministers in Bonn, Berlin and the nearby city of Hanover, the state capital, blithely disregarded the problem.

The public finally rebelled against this ignorance in 2007, when the former operator of the storage site, the Munich-based German Research Center for Environmental Health (HMGU), decided to flood the tunnels with a magnesium chloride solution. Local residents were afraid that filling the cavities could allow radioactive substances to seep into the drinking water supply. The concern was that contaminated water could reach the Elbe River and spread as far as Hamburg. Citizens’ initiatives were formed, internal papers were leaked, an investigative committee pored through thousands of binders — and it all resulted in the biggest environmental scandal in postwar German history. Now, all political parties firmly believe that the only acceptable message to local residents is the promise to retrieve the drums of radioactive waste…..

he debate will resurface with every additional delay, every cost overrun, every bit of geological bad news and every internal report that questions the project’s chances of success or the logic of retrieving the nuclear waste. The people who live in Germany’s northern Harz mountain range have grown edgy due to Asse’s misuse as a nuclear waste repository, and they feel that they have been lied to and deceived. They also realize that many officials at the BfS, the Federal Environment Ministry and the licensing agencies think the retrieval project is absolutely insane.

Which is the better solution? Gradually bringing the nuclear waste out of the mine or basically entombing the stuff underground?… in addition to having 126,000 drums filled with radioactive refuse, Asse’s system of tunnels, which resembles the architecture of an anthill, is in danger of collapsing.

“This is a totally ramshackle construction,” says Köhler. For decades, the tunnels were allowed to fall into decay because the facility was about to be closed. In order to at least get some forewarning of an impending collapse, engineers have installed a micro-seismic system, the first of its kind anywhere. Twenty-eight monitoring stations register even the minutest tremors in the mine. Even a dropped hammer will be caught by the sensors.

Last year, the “Spiral,” a kind of serpentine road between the tunnels, collapsed. It’s the “lifeblood” of the facility, explains Köhler. It took months to dig a new tunnel into the salt……

Environmental Sensitivities

When it was decided to retrieve the 126,000 drums, the BfS made a video that demonstrated how easy the job would be: It showed how robots would collect the barrels, compress them or wrap them in foil, and then bring them up to the surface. The video claimed that the operation would be completed by 2025, at the latest.

Now, it’s clear that it won’t be possible to retrieve even a single drum during the current decade. The salvage operation will mainly require the construction of an additional system of tunnels — basically a new mine next to the old one — and this primarily presents a moral dilemma for environmentalists……

Last year, one of the top people at the BfS quit the agency to work for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — and he left with a bang: Michael Siemann, the project manager for the retrieval, said on television that a safe retrieval of the waste was, in his opinion, unrealistic for technical reasons. “Many people know this, but no one wants to say it,” he noted, out of fear of bad press and incurring the wrath of the public. The geochemist said that, in view of the decrepit condition of the tunnels and the lack of robotic technology, he felt that there was neither the time nor the means to safely bring the waste aboveground. But, he added, politicians don’t want to hear this.

Back in 2011, Siemann summarized the difficulties in an internal memo and recommended that the agency “already now make the professional and communicative preparations to abandon the ‘retrieval’ project.”……..

Fighting Ignorance and Disinformation

These days, it isn’t easy to work as a professor for medical physics and radiation protection. “After Fukushima, it was often unbearable to hear the nonsense that was disseminated about nuclear radiation, even by reputable television stations,” says Joachim Breckow. As the president of the German-Swiss Radiation Protection Association (FS), an organization with over 1,400 members working in research, industry and government agencies, he is faced with a choice: Should he simply keep his mouth shut and marvel at so much misinformation and ignorance? Or should he try to educate the public?

Last fall, Breckow, 58, decided it was finally time to speak out. The topic was Asse. He urged Germany to put a stop to the concept of retrieval because, in his opinion, it is “probably not the best solution.” This gave the citizens’ initiatives yet another perceived enemy…..

Breckow argues that radiation-protection experts should help ensure that people’s exposure is kept to an absolute minimum. But the biophysicist contends that the current planning by politicians will actually increase the risks.

He says that it is “simply naïve to believe” that machines alone could remove the nuclear waste from the mine. He adds that nuclear radiation would also be released during the transport and packaging of the rusting drums. Furthermore, he points out that a colossal intermediate storage area would have to be built, presumably the largest in Germany, and protected from airplane crashes and terrorist attacks. All of this could be avoided, he says, if at least a large proportion of the waste were simply left in the mine. He calls this the lesser of two evils…. http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/germany-weighs-options-for-handling-nuclear-waste-in-asse-mine-a-884523.html

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