Radioactive Leakage: Berlin Takes Steps to Address Nuclear Waste Scandal

Responsibility for a leaking radioactive waste site in the mountains of Lower Saxony has been shifted from one office to another in the German government. The scandal has political fallout, but whether -- and how -- the leaking waste can be cleaned up is still not clear.

Drums containing radioactive waste in the Asse storage site.
DDP

Drums containing radioactive waste in the Asse storage site.

After a damning report about nuclear waste leaking from a Cold War-era storage facility in Lower Saxony -- a former salt and potash mine called Asse-II -- the German government will dissolve the bureau responsible for its maintenance, the Helmholtz Center for Health and Environment, and put another office in charge, the Federal Office for Radiation Protection.

The shake-up represents a changing of the guard between two rival ministers.

Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel has led the chorus of criticism over the interim report, which said nearly 130,000 barrels of low- to medium-grade nuclear waste had been mishandled and warned that groundwater leaking from the mine was radioactive. Gabriel said Asse-II was "the most problematic nuclear facility in Europe" -- in part because the mine stood in danger of collapse.

His Environment Ministry oversees the Federal Office for Radiation Protection. So Gabriel, a Social Democrat, will take over ultimate responsibility for the site from Dr. Annette Schavan, a conservative Christian Democrat in charge of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Her ministry oversees the Helmholtz Center.

But Schavan implied Thursday that the move was not a criticism of the Helmholtz Center or its employees. To avoid a delay in cleaning up the mine, in fact, about 200 experts from the Helmholtz Center will be hired by the Federal Office for Radiation Protection.

She said the goal of the shift was "a lasting and secure solution to the problem," according to Reuters. Before the end of the year, the German government will recommend a way to close the facility "in a safe way for humans and the environment," she said.

But the Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung reported Thursday that the state of Lower Saxony has also revoked responsibility for Asse II from its own state mining bureau, which worked with the Munich-based Helmholtz Center, and started disciplinary action against two state employees -- the head of the Lower Saxony Mining Office as well as the head of the division directly responsible for disposal of nuclear waste. Both officials were accused of knowing about the security problem for years, and saying nothing.

Once an "experimental" nuclear waste facility, opened in 1967, Asse-II will now officially become a final or "definitive" storage facility for nuclear waste -- which brings it under stricter laws. But the mine is apparently in sorry shape. Gabriel said one shaft was "as full of holes as Swiss cheese." He admitted his office could have done more to investigate the site before the damning report.

The move to shift responsibility for the storage facility comes one day after leading Green Party member Renate Künast lodged criminal complaints against the operators of the facility.

msm -- with wire reports

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