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 3: Political Foot-Dragging

Even if the Bundestag passes the Lex Asse in March, the mistrust will remain. As Marcus Bosse, a local state parliamentarian with the SPD, puts it, there are "too many moles" in the key institutions who oppose retrieving the waste. Bosse believes a handful of officials and consultants have turned out to be foot-draggers. They are employees of the BfS and consultants for the Federal Environment Ministry -- and they have all spoken out in favor of flooding the mine.

Bosse sees the responsible department head at the Federal Environment Ministry, Gerald Hennenhöfer, as someone who is particularly determined to drag things out.

Hennenhöfer, a lawyer by trade, has a reputation for being not only the government's most experienced nuclear expert, but also an advocate of nuclear power. The ministerial director of Asse officially deigned to only say a few sober words: "We bear a heavy responsibility and feel obliged to the people in the region and their desire for retrieval," he said. At the same time, he added, the ministry will have to bear in mind all risks. "We are bound by law to do this," he concluded.

This éminence grise's degree of skepticism toward the intentions of Germany's politicians can be largely interpreted from instructions that were sent to the BfS in March 2010: Retrieval would only be the best solution "under certain circumstances," it said. It concluded that the BfS should "immediately" proceed with "measures for the secure storage of the radioactive waste in the subterranean cavities."

Among the local politicians throughout the Asse region, there are many who are calling for Hennenhöfer's resignation because he decides who gets appointed to all higher positions at the BfS. He also monitors the Asse operator and keeps the agency busy jumping through bureaucratic hoops. From December 2008 to December 2012, the ministry sent over 160 regulatory demands to the BfS in addition to all the requested reports.

Regardless of which politician one asks in the region -- the district administrator, the CDU state parliamentarian or his SPD colleague -- they are all shocked over the bureaucrats' apparent efforts to play for time. Dorothée Menzner, a member of the Bundestag Environment Committee for the far-left Left Party, has personally experienced this with Peter Hart from the department for nuclear supply and disposal at the Environment Ministry: "He rejected every proposal to speed up the retrieval," she says. "All he would say was: not possible, not possible. So I asked him to tell me what is possible."

Menzner stops short of saying that Environment Minister Altmaier has no intention of retrieving the Asse waste. But she certainly asks herself whether he can assert himself in his own ministry. "Much of the mind-set that resulted in extending the life spans of nuclear power plants over two years ago is still present," she says.

Suspicions of Back-Tracking

But perhaps the political failure is of an entirely different sort. Last year, one of the top people at the BfS quit the agency to work for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) -- and he left with a bang: Michael Siemann, the project manager for the retrieval, said on television that a safe retrieval of the waste was, in his opinion, unrealistic for technical reasons. "Many people know this, but no one wants to say it," he noted, out of fear of bad press and incurring the wrath of the public. The geochemist said that, in view of the decrepit condition of the tunnels and the lack of robotic technology, he felt that there was neither the time nor the means to safely bring the waste aboveground. But, he added, politicians don't want to hear this.

Back in 2011, Siemann summarized the difficulties in an internal memo and recommended that the agency "already now make the professional and communicative preparations to abandon the 'retrieval' project."

To Dettmann, the protest coordinator, every statement like this, every complication, every delay serves as further evidence that "in reality, they don't want to take the stuff out." In fact, the activist and his like-minded friends are asking themselves where the loopholes in the new law are. With the aid of their legal counsel, they have carefully weighed and dissected the text. In a minor fit of paranoia, they are now even wondering whether the Lex Asse will pave the way for a legally airtight way of abandoning the retrieval. Indeed, the current draft law states that increased contamination when recovering the waste has to be weighed against the risks of leaving it underground.

Dettmann feels torn. They are finally getting their law -- but they just can't shake off their suspicions. The activist estimates that there's a 75 percent chance that Asse will one day be free of nuclear waste. "But if we stop here with our citizens' initiative," he says, "that figure will sink to zero percent."

Fighting Ignorance and Disinformation

These days, it isn't easy to work as a professor for medical physics and radiation protection. "After Fukushima, it was often unbearable to hear the nonsense that was disseminated about nuclear radiation, even by reputable television stations," says Joachim Breckow. As the president of the German-Swiss Radiation Protection Association (FS), an organization with over 1,400 members working in research, industry and government agencies, he is faced with a choice: Should he simply keep his mouth shut and marvel at so much misinformation and ignorance? Or should he try to educate the public?

Last fall, Breckow, 58, decided it was finally time to speak out. The topic was Asse. He urged Germany to put a stop to the concept of retrieval because, in his opinion, it is "probably not the best solution." This gave the citizens' initiatives yet another perceived enemy.

The professor has his office on the ninth floor of the THM University of Applied Sciences in Giessen, Hesse. Breckow says that using Asse as the nation's radioactive toilet has been "an absolutely appalling mess." As a result, he says that researchers and the nuclear industry -- but also radiation-protection experts -- have lost much of their credibility, and he concludes that this is precisely why they "finally must be honest." He says that it's time to go against the current "instead of simply swimming along."

Breckow argues that radiation-protection experts should help ensure that people's exposure is kept to an absolute minimum. But the biophysicist contends that the current planning by politicians will actually increase the risks.

He says that it is "simply naïve to believe" that machines alone could remove the nuclear waste from the mine. He adds that nuclear radiation would also be released during the transport and packaging of the rusting drums. Furthermore, he points out that a colossal intermediate storage area would have to be built, presumably the largest in Germany, and protected from airplane crashes and terrorist attacks. All of this could be avoided, he says, if at least a large proportion of the waste were simply left in the mine. He calls this the lesser of two evils.

Breckow says that, as a radiation-protection expert, he is not allowed to "play anything down," but he is allowed to make calculations and then give his recommendations. It's a matter of balancing everyone's interests, and it currently clearly weighs against retrieval.

The scientist makes the following calculation: Even in the case of "an uncontrollable influx of solvents" -- in other words, if Asse became completely flooded -- many decades in the future, the population would be subject to a maximum radiation exposure of 0.1 millisievert, which corresponds to 3 percent of the annual exposure from naturally occurring radiation. The local population would, at most, have to avoid drinking water from the area.

Anyone who is given a standard X-ray, Breckow explains, is exposed to roughly 0.5 millisievert -- or five times the annual "Asse dosage." Anyone who has themselves examined using computer tomography is exposed to 10 millisievert. To put it another way, anyone who lives for 100 years in the region surrounding a mine like Asse that is filling up with water would receive the same amount of radiation as from 20 conventional X-rays or one computer tomography during the course of their entire lifetime. Such comparisons are necessary, says Breckow, in order to "understand the radiation exposure."

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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