The Nuclear Sell Why One Swedish Town Welcomes a Waste Dump

Part 2: Expressing Joy, Swedish-Style


The decision was made on a rainy summer day in 2009. Edelsvärd remembers the day very clearly. Östhammar town officials were sitting at the town hall, watching a live broadcast of the showdown in Stockholm. When the name of their community appeared on the screen, Edelsvärd says that "people weren't cheering the way they would at a football match, but you could sense the feeling of elation in the room. It was a very Swedish way of expressing joy."

It's an odd thing to feel elated about, at least from the perspective of people in Germany and everywhere else in the world, where the issue of nuclear waste storage remains unresolved.

Over the decades, thousands of spent fuel rods have accumulated in Germany. In the past, they were sent abroad for reprocessing, but today they are temporarily stored in ordinary warehouses around the country or in containers in Gorleben and Ahaus in western Germany. Even if the nuclear phase-out happens quickly, roughly 17,000 tons of radioactive materials will eventually require disposal. There is no realistic plan for approaching the problem, but there is a battleground: Gorleben, the planned site for a permanent repository in the eastern part of Lower Saxony. More than anything else, the conflict over the location -- which has been going on since the 1970s -- highlights how a plan can go completely wrong.

Most People Against the Project

There have been quiet times at Gorleben, like the one that followed the moratorium imposed by the former governing coalition between the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party. But those days are now over. "Since exploration started up here again, the razor wire is back," says Andreas Graf von Bernstorff, as he drives his Land Rover along the perimeter of what signs still designate a "mine." The forest he owns is to the right, and the site of the planned repository to the left. It looks like the perimeter of a large prison.

"I don't believe that the permanent repository will ever materialize," Bernstorff adds, noting that there was too much deception on the part of politicians and the nuclear lobby, which lost its credibility as a result. The majority of citizens in the Lüchow-Dannenberg administrative district are decidedly against the project, he says.

Bernstorff is one of the largest landowners in the area. He is conservative and a former member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), but the finagling over the repository has turned him into a bitter adversary of the nuclear lobby.

It all began with a mysterious forest fire in 1975. After that, nuclear energy officials offered to buy 600 hectares (1,320 acres) of his land for roughly 30 million deutsche marks, or about 10 times its market value at the time.

Bernstorff hesitated. He is a member of the northern German aristocracy, and his family has owned the estate since 1694. He sees himself as a link in a long chain, and he says that some things are more important than money, such as leaving land to your heirs in better condition than you found it in.

Ernst Albrecht, the state's governor at the time, met with the blue-blooded skeptic and jovially counselled him to sell, adding that local residents would quickly get used to the idea, just as people have gotten used to other nuclear projects. Resistance to such projects, Albrecht told Bernstorff, tended to only last about two years.

"As it turns out," Bernstorff says, "people here didn't get used to it." He drives past a brown brick building with a sign on it that reads: "Wendland Thermal Baths." The majority of local residents couldn't be bought off, not even with a luxury swimming pool.

The plan espoused by politicians and industry representatives envisioned the following: They would take this underdeveloped, sparsely populated district near the East German border, and if people proved to be uncooperative, they would use money to sweeten the deal in the form of benefits like a new fire truck, a new wing for the local hospital and a new community center. The plan was to inject a total of 500 million deutsche mark into the region. Nevertheless, in 1991, the CDU -- which supported the project -- lost its absolute majority in the district council.

Money alone wasn't enough to create trust, and supposedly representative democratic bodies -- such as the "Gorleben Commission" -- failed to convince most citizens that they were being taken seriously. Bernstorff, who was a member of the commission, says that objections and concerns about earthquakes, the risk of explosions, flooding and the porous layer of clay surrounding the salt dome didn't stand much of a chance. The attitude, says Bernstorff, was simple: "What doesn't fit will be made to fit."

Responsibility and Jobs

It is late afternoon in Östhammar, as Edelsvärd walks along the quite main street lined with wooden houses painted red and yellow. He doesn't run into a single person on his walk. An authoritarian process like the one that took place in Gorleben wouldn't stand a chance in Sweden, Edelsvärd says. Instead, the pros and cons of a permanent repository were discussed openly in Östhammar.

It smells like wood in the kindergarten, which is in a yellow building on a small knoll. The children are pulling toy diggers across the freshly scrubbed floor. Blue-and-green toy butterflies hang from the ceiling, and there is a miniature farm in a corner. The room exudes a feeling of security and comfort in a picture-perfect Swedish village.

One of the mothers in the room says that she has no objections to the permanent repository even though she voted for the Greens in the last election. "The stuff has to go somewhere," she says, adding that people who use energy should also take responsibility for the consequences. "We can't just send this toxic material to Africa."

Another mother says: "The repository creates jobs, and safety is the top priority." She feels well informed by the town council and SKB.

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