Nuclear Waste Too Hot to Handle

The failure by Germany's environment ministry to find storage sites for the country's nuclear waste is causing a meltdown in the ruling coalition.
A toxic political mix.

Germany's minister for the environment does not refrain from making grand pronouncements. A little more than a year ago, Barbara Hendricks said a suitable final storage site for the country's nuclear waste must be found.

“I consider this to be a task of truly national significance,” Ms. Hendricks said.

Since then, Germany’s government has made hardly any progress in finding a location. For years, the country has been producing electricity with nuclear power and creating radioactive waste, but still Germany has identified no suitable final storage site.

What’s worse: Even the search for suitable interim facilities - which will become critical as the country closes its nuclear power plants as part of its shift to alternative energy - is not moving ahead.

A total of 26 large casks for storing and transporting radioactive material, called CASTOR containers, are currently at reprocessing facilities at La Hague in France and Sellafield in Britain. All need to be stored.

“Unfortunately, you can't just wish away the stuff,” said Franz Untersteller, the Green Party environmental minister of Baden-Württemberg state in southwest Germany. The federal ministry for the environment must “now finally present its long-overdue comprehensive concept,” he said.

At the moment, Ms. Hendricks is anything but talkative. Despite intensive discussions within her ministry about all the German states under consideration, “no further site has been found up to now,” a spokesperson said.

Ms. Hendricks is a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party, the minority partner in Germany’s right-left coalition government.

Not a single state that is governed by Germany's Christian Democrats has expressed a willingness in storing the nation's atomic waste. Sylvia Kotting-Uhl, spokeswoman for nuclear energy policy, the Green Party

In 2013, the state of Baden-Württemberg, governed by the Greens with a Social Democratic junior coalition partner, and the state of Schleswig-Holstein in northern Germany, governed by Social Democrats with the Greens, declared themselves ready to temporarily store some of the waste.

Ms. Hendricks wanted to present a third site by Easter — Easter 2014, almost a year ago. Adding to her problems was the lack of volunteers among states governed by the ruling Christian Democrats.

“The Christian Democracts should now finally get involved in solving the problem — especially the chancellor, Angela Merkel,” said Robert Habeck, the Green environment minister in Schleswig-Holstein. “She has the power to put pressure on state premiers, to talk turkey with the companies, or to solve the CASTOR problem herself.”

He pointed out that an interim storage facility exists in Chancellor Merkel’s own electoral district.

He was referring to the interim facility at a former nuclear power plant in Lubmin, in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, in northeastern Germany. But the focus is also on the states of Bavaria and Hesse.

“Up to today, not a single state governed by Christian Democrats has expressed a willingness in storing atomic waste,” said Sylvia Kotting-Uhl, a Green party spokeswoman for nuclear energy policy in the Bundestag.

“In legal and technical terms, all interim sites for storing and reprocessing nuclear waste continue to be under consideration,” said a spokesperson at the federal environment ministry. Twelve interim sites exist in Germany, one of which, however — Brunsbüttel in Schleswig-Holstein — recently lost its license.

At the moment, there is only an emergency authorization for the nine CASTOR containers already stored there.

A commission set up in 2014 to find a suitable final storage site is also having difficulties.

The panel of 34 members was supposed to establish criteria for finding a final storage site by the end of this year. Commission members no longer exclude the possibility it could take until the end of 2016.


Nuclear Energy in Germany-01 power plants shut down map


Progress in achieving a consensus is reportedly slow. Not helping the matter is the fact that some members are unyielding advocates of the controversial Gorleben deep geological storage repository in northwestern Germany.

The facility, a series of naturally occuring salt domes hundreds of metres below the surface, has been the focus of protests and demonstrations by environmentalists since the 1970s, even though it has never been used to store radioactive waste.

For decades, the repository has been the only option for storing high-level radioactive waste, but it has been vulnerable to criticism because of some alleged safety issues, which the government denies.

Gorleben remains an option as a final repository for German nuclear waste.

For low- and medium-level radioactive waste, the storage site will be Schacht Konrad, a decomissioned iron-ore mine in Lower Saxony. But the site will not be operational before 2022 — and what is more, it is too small. For example, there is not enough room to take the containers stored at Asse II, another former salt mine that has become unstable and must be cleared.

And after the shutdown of all nuclear power plants in Germany by 2022, there will be even more nuclear waste to be stored. Highly radioactive fuel elements and low- and medium-level material will be produced over decades during the decommissioning.


Silke Kersting is a Handelsblatt reporter focusing on consumer protection, construction and environmental policy. To contact the author: [email protected]