The Nuclear Sell Why One Swedish Town Welcomes a Waste Dump

Part 4: About-Turn on Nuclear Energy


The man whose most important job is to make sure that he's not being deceived by Laârouchi Engström and her company is Jacob Spangenberg, the mayor of Östhammar.

Spangenberg, a tall, angular man with large sideburns, strolls through the Östhammar town hall. He has been in office for five years, and he is a member of the Center Party, a centrist group that reflects the spectrum of Swedish public opinion on the subject of nuclear power.

After opposing nuclear energy in the 1980s, Spangenberg's party now sees it as something reasonable. Two years ago, together with the Moderate Party, it voted to end a previous phase-out policy.

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, this basic attitude toward nuclear energy hasn't changed much, not even at Östhammar's town hall. Sounding almost triumphant, Spangenberg says that he has not received "a single e-mail" or any "worried phone calls" because of Japan.

He interprets the lack of opposition as a validation of his work. In his view, the citizens of Östhammar believe that their mayor has everything under control -- and that Östhammar is not Japan.

Most of the people in his town have no problem with nuclear energy, Spangenberg says. For Germans, on the other hand, he says it would be inconceivable for someone to voluntarily bring a permanent repository into his or her own backyard. To Germans, he adds with a laugh, these people are nothing but "duuuuummäääään Schweden" ("stupid Swedes"). Though he speaks very little German, he has heard this expression often enough in recent weeks to put it to memory.

Spangenberg believes that building consensus is part of Swedish tradition. He says that Swedes believe the government is the right body to evaluate and communicate the pros and cons of a problem. "At 52 percent, people pay a very high tax rate here," Spangenberg explains. "In return, they take us up on our promises and expect quite a lot from us."

There are many opponents of nuclear energy -- particularly in other countries -- who accuse Östhammar's residents of being open to bribery and of charging a high price for accepting nuclear waste -- a price paid in cash, lump-sum payments and infrastructure improvements.

Spangenberg is familiar with these suspicions. He smiles uneasily -- the kind of forced, patient smile that people in his position sometimes need.

Creating Jobs in Östhammar

The biggest investment, Spangenberg says, is the permanent repository. The construction work will create 500-600 jobs for about 10 years and, after the site has been filled in, there will another 250 jobs for the next 40 years. But, Spangenberg explains, he and the citizens of Östhammar primarily see the repository as an investment in the future of a relatively underdeveloped stretch of the Swedish coast. If a few restaurants, hotels and a training facility for technicians materialized in the process, what mayor could turn these things down?

Still, Spangenberg believes that the only thing that makes all of this work is that the community feels it can trust SKB. "If the scientists ultimately fail to convince us with their technology," Spangenberg insists, "we will definitely not give them the go-ahead for construction," Spangenberg insists. And he adds that, to make sure the pressure is kept up on SKB, the town has hired four additional employees who are soley responsible for addressing safety issues.

The mayor wields a lot of leverage, and he is determined to at least create the impression that he is using it. But he is aware that his leverage also has to control a safety process that applies for the next 100,000 years -- that is, for the next 3,000 generations.

It seems presumptuous for anyone to claim to be able to calculate what will be happening in the granite bedrock off the coast in 100,000 years. Geologists says there might be a cold period in 100,000 years, and that a layer of ice three kilometers thick might cover the entire country. The containers would have to remain sealed even after that.

Lasting Impressions

The glaciers of a new ice age would also reach Gorleben.

On a spring afternoon in Gorleben, Bernstorff is sitting in the forestry office on his family estate. A map on the table next to him shows the Gorleben salt dome.

Bernstorff taps his finger on the unexplored part of the salt dome he drove past this morning in his Land Rover. Twenty years ago, the federal government asked Bernstorff for permission to conduct underground explorations of the site. He turned them down.

This particular section of the salt dome is considered the best and most stable part of the formation. And it just might be a place where a suitable permanent repository for nuclear waste could be found in Germany.

"Exploration in Gorleben over the last 30 years has had little to do with democracy," Bernstorff says. Aside from the men who turned up there in the late 1970s, drove around in sleek, silver buses and touted the blessings of nuclear energy, no official has ever taken the trouble to hold a reasonable conversation with people in the region on the subject of permanent repositories.

This omission created the impression that officials were finagling, that the nuclear lobby was authoritarian and that the police force was looking out for itself.

Bernstorff takes a deep breath and looks out the window at the shimmering, pale green colors of spring in Gorleben. He says that the waste gradually has to be removed from the earth's surface. And he adds that one castor container alone contains 100 times the radioactivity of the entire Asse storage site.

Re-establishing Trust

While a community in eastern Sweden believes that it is joining the modern age by fighting for a permanent repository, the majority of Germans in eastern Lower Saxony have been fighting against such a repository for decades. In reaction to the threat, local residents are using wind power, solar energy and biogas to supply the entire administrative district with alternative energy.

Perhaps they are indeed more courageous, more creative and more 21st-century than the people of Östhammar. But the fact remains that the most hazardous waste of the 20th century must be disposed of and that the section of the salt dome on Bernstorff's land could very well be the best place to do this in Germany.

It's all a matter of trust, that critical raw material, of how it was gambled away and how it could be re-established.

Bernstorff sighs.

What is needed, he says, is a credible, transparent exploration process, one that truly investigates whether there might actually be better options and locations.

And what if the outcome of that process still points to Gorleben?

Bernstorff sighs again. In that case, he says, one could consider cooperating.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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