Abyss of Uncertainty: Germany's Homemade Nuclear Waste Disaster

By Michael Fröhlingsdorf, Udo Ludwig and Alfred Weinzierl

Photo Gallery: Germany's Nuclear Waste Headache Photos
DPA

Part 2: Mountains of Red Tape

Which is the better solution? Gradually bringing the nuclear waste out of the mine or basically entombing the stuff underground? Jens Köhler, 47, is a mining engineer. He has built tunnels in the Alps, in China and in India, but he refuses to answer this question. The Asse boss says that he is doing the job that the politicians have given him -- and that job is to stabilize the mine so the waste can be removed.

Köhler exchanges the traditional German miners' greeting -- Glück auf! ("Good luck!") -- with everyone that he meets underground. When he hears a noise coming from the tunnel roof, he stops to listen: "Ahhh, my favorite sound," he says. The noise means that the "system is running," and that special concrete is being pumped into the dilapidated tunnels.

Indeed, 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.

Köhler is in a race against time, and the engineer has no idea whether he can win it. Until now, though, Asse has primarily been a bureaucratic monster for him. "The approval processes are extremely demanding," Köhler says pointedly, referring to the nerve-racking red tape. Each new step in the work involves dozens of binders with permits, assessments and statements.

Some things have to be approved by the Environment Ministry of Lower Saxony, some by the state mining agency. And Altmaier's Federal Environment Ministry lords above it all as the supreme supervisory authority. Before the first test drilling could begin in mid-2012, it took two-and-a-half years and required 18,000 sheets of paper for licensing documents -- enough to make a stack as high as the mining tower at Asse.

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.

When workers began to clear a forest for the construction of a new mineshaft, they came across a pond where they discovered an egg mass of an amphibian that is on the list of critically endangered species in Lower Saxony. The agile frog (Rana dalmatina) is also on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Now, a plan is needed to save this population -- along with a rescue operation for the bulbs of rare flowers, such as the martagon lily and the spring snowflake.

The new mineshaft won't be operational before 2025. To make matters worse, there are still no plans for a packing facility or for an immense hangar in which up to 50,000 cubic meters (1.8 million cubic feet) of radioactive waste -- and just as much contaminated salt -- could be stored following retrieval.

Asse is a prime example of the emotional nature of environmental issues. The saltwater that has been permanently dripping into the mining galleries for the past 25 years is captured long before it comes in contact with the storage drums. There is actually no reason why the liquid couldn't be dumped into the North Sea, but water from Asse has an image problem. Nobody wants it -- unless they get something in return. Consequently, the pure saltwater is trucked over 100 kilometers (62 miles) to the former salt mine of Mariaglück, which is being flooded anyway. The owner of this mine, the K+S Group, has taken in roughly €1 million since 2009 in exchange for accepting the unproblematic water from Asse.

Hoodwinked for 40 Years

When Udo Dettmann, 40, looks out his window, he sees railroad tracks that pass directly by his house on the way to Asse. The tracks, where freight trains transporting salt from the mine rolled until 1964, play an important role in the life of this engineer. As a child, the overgrown rail corridor was a big playground for him, but today he also appreciates the railroad bed. "I can chain myself to the rails," he says "if they decide to ship the magnesium chloride for flooding Asse."

Dettmann is the chairman of the Asse II Coordination Group, placing him at the heart of all public protests. The people in the Coordination Group are neither professional protesters nor obstinate ideologues, and they don't automatically reject things that could be uncomfortable.

Dettmann's cousin used to work at Asse. It was seen as an attractive job. Back when the area was an isolated corner of West Germany, not far from the border with East Germany, many of the locals saw the research facility as their ticket to getting ahead. Asse offered jobs, growth and the promise of a brighter future. Children's birthdays could be celebrated with a guided underground tour of the mine, and the HMGU invited local politicians to Munich for Oktoberfest. And since nuclear waste doesn't stink, doesn't cloud the air and doesn't leave any visible traces, Dettmann says that they put any possible dangers "out of their minds" at the time.

It wasn't until someone attending a wedding talked about how water had rushed in and the mine was in danger of flooding that a group of local residents decided to inform themselves -- and finally realized "that we had been taken for a ride here for 40 years," says Dettmann.

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