When politicians put far too much pathos into their speeches, people should be on their guard -- with a notable exception. There is one issue where no comparison is overinflated and no superlative appears exaggerated: Winfried Kretschmann, for instance -- the governor of the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg and a member of Germany's Green Party -- spoke of "theological timeframes" that now need to be decided upon.
His counterpart from Lower Saxony, Stephan Weil of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), refers to a different time horizon for his actions: the Schöningen Spears, a number of 300,000-year-old Paleolithic hunting weapons that archaeologists found in his home state. And the co-floor leader of the Green Party in the German parliament, Jürgen Trittin, reminded his fellow politicians that this was about "finding a site for the most dangerous waste that mankind has ever produced."
The 'Last Contentious Issue in Peaceful Nuclear Energy'
The issue is nuclear waste and its safe disposal. Germany will have to build a storage facility deep underground that can survive the ravages of wars, revolutions and even another ice age. Indeed, the remains of the nuclear age will have to be kept in a final repository for 1 million years -- longer than the human race has existed.
That is, at least, the aim of the draft legislation that prompted such reverential rhetoric from politicians in the opposition and the government when it was presented last month in Berlin. Under the direction of German Environment Minister Peter Altmaier, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the bill lays out a plan for determining the location of a final repository for the highly radioactive waste from Germany's nuclear power plants. Currently, politicians are still haggling over the details of the proposed law, which Altmaier says will remove "the last contentious issue surrounding the peaceful use of nuclear energy."
What the representatives of the people would rather not talk about, though, is the decommissioning of Germany's nuclear power plants. They were once the cathedrals of industrial progress. But now their cooling towers and domes have become widely visible symbols of human folly.
According to the latest calculations by the German Environment Ministry, the operation and decommissioning of the country's reactors will produce 173,442 cubic meters (over 6.1 million cubic feet) of low to medium-level radioactive waste that has to be stored underground. On top of that, there are 107,430 cubic meters of radioactive detritus from government institutions.
It's a monumental task that the Germans won't complete until 2080 "at the earliest," says nuclear expert Michael Sailer from the Öko-Institut, a non-profit research and consulting association for sustainable technology in Berlin. "After all, these are conservative estimates without any leeway for setbacks."
No Smooth Sailing
But it doesn't look as if things will go smoothly. On the contrary, the phasing out of nuclear power is accompanied by the agonizing challenge of decommissioning existing reactors: Eight nuclear power plants that were rapidly taken offline at the behest of the German government in the wake of Japan's Fukushima disaster have to be dismantled concurrently, followed by an additional nine facilities by the end of 2022.
There is still no roadmap for the decommissioning. To make matters worse, critics say that they see initial indications of eroding safety standards for decommissioning licenses as authorities struggle to cope with the mountains of nuclear waste.
Two locations are planned for the final storage. Environment Minister Altmaier's proposed legislation calls for a deep geological repository for highly radioactive waste to be located by the year 2031. For a long time, the salt dome in Gorleben in the western state of Lower Saxony was designated for this purpose, but that controversial plan has been scrapped and the search must now begin anew.
The Konrad mining shaft, an old iron ore mine near the central German town of Salzgitter in the same state, has been selected for storage of low to medium-level radioactive rubble from decommissioned reactors and is currently under development. The startup date recently had to be postponed from 2019 to 2021. In the meantime, the waste is piling up at intermediate storage facilities, for example, in Ahaus in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia and in Greifswald in the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where the radioactive scrap is cut into manageable sizes that are suitable for storage. The mountain of radioactive waste has already grown to an impressive 100,000 cubic meters.
Since the storage situation is becoming more precarious, operators are trying to have their old facilities carted off in increasingly larger sections. For instance, in the southern German town of Obrigheim and the northern German town of Stade, massive steam generators from the reactors have been removed in one piece. Due to a lack of space, some of these huge components have even been shipped to Sweden.