The Curse of Gorleben: Germany's Endless Search for a Nuclear Waste Dump


Part 2: Politicians Vs. Geologists

The first politicians who clashed over the long-term storage issue in the late 1970s were then Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and Ernst Albrecht, the governor of Lower Saxony at the time. Neither of the two men was particularly well versed in geology or nuclear physics.

At the time, after the first oil crisis, West Germany was developing ambitious plans for nuclear energy. Politicians hoped that by building 50 nuclear power plants, the country could create a source of cheap and inexhaustible electricity. To fulfill this vision, a large permanent repository for radioactive waste was needed. It was also clear what this entailed: a good salt dome, a kind of geological structure deep beneath the earth's surface, which is believed to be particularly stable and impervious to water.

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This was bad news for Lower Saxony, which is home to hundreds of salt domes. The federal government's demand to the state's geological research agency was simple: Pick one.

In what resembled a clandestine commando operation, drilling teams arrived in the western Emsland region, near the village of Börger, in early 1976, claiming to be searching for oil. But village residents soon figured out what was going on and quickly formed action groups and drafted resolutions. Local dairy farmers staged protests, fearing that their milk might become tainted by waste from a radioactive storage site and would then be unmarketable.

Eight potential sites were identified, three of them in Lower Saxony. Gorleben was not one of the sites, at least from the perspective of geologists, who believed that sites at Börger, Ahlden and Fassberg were more suitable. But geologists are no politicians.

The Perfect Spot

The governor, Ernst Albrecht, soon decided that he had had enough of the ensuing unrest in his state. Elections were coming up, and Albrecht, who reasoned that the sight of protests at various salt domes in his state would have been his political undoing, wrote a furious letter to Chancellor Schmidt in Bonn. The drilling operations, he wrote, required "significant police protection involving large numbers of personnel." Unfortunately, he continued, this was something he "could not guarantee at adequate levels at the present time."

Albrecht decided to take a pro-active approach to solving the problem and instructed his state geological research agency to search for a suitable site. That was how the name of Gorleben came up. The village was located in a thinly populated area near the border with East Germany. Given the underdeveloped local economy, Albrecht reasoned, the locals would surely welcome a major project. In other words, Gorleben was the perfect spot for a long-term radioactive waste storage site -- from a politician's standpoint. But politicians are no geologists.

In their assessment, the geologists pointed out that Gorleben was located in a level 1 earthquake zone -- the only one of the potential sites in such a zone. The experts also noted with some concern that the Gorleben salt dome was beneath the Elbe River. Finally, they wrote that it was highly likely that "there is a natural gas deposit located at a depth of about 3,500 meters below the salt dome," and that any attempts to recover the gas could lead to "large-scale subsidence of the soil." They added that when East Germany drilled for gas across the border, there were "explosions" that destroyed a drilling rig.

Earthquakes, natural gas, explosions? These aren't exactly the words one likes to hear when searching for a permanent repository site designed to last for several hundred thousand years.

Real Dangers

Chancellor Schmidt argued that the Gorleben site was also unsuitable for international political reasons. His government feared that East Germany could even take control of the Gorleben permanent repository in a surprise attack. Bonn ruled that Albrecht's choice could "not be considered."

In politics, there are abstract risks and very real dangers. The fear of earthquakes or an invasion by the East German National People's Army is relatively abstract. But protests at several salt dome sites, on the other hand, represented a very real danger. Albrecht sensed that the fight over a radioactive waste storage site would be "much more contentious" than the controversy over "any nuclear power plant." He clearly outlined the risks in his draft bill: "The nature and size of the potential deployment area, the unpredictable duration of the expected demonstrations and the predictable, extremely determined, methodical and violent actions of nationally coordinated radical groups will require a police operation on an unprecedented scale."

In other words, the less densely populated an area was, the less likely it was that protests would be significant, and the easier it would be to control those protests. Based on these arguments, Gorleben was chosen in February 1977.

The next few years would bring both conflict and benefits to the region. The local hospital argued it needed a new annex, while the fire department said it required 10 new fire trucks, due to the "elevated risk of forest fires." The federal government was happy to pay up, with officials reasoning that a "certain generosity" could only promote local acceptance of the project. Lower Saxony, Gorleben and the neighboring villages received a total of about 500 million German marks (about €256 million), some of it contributed by the nuclear industry.

Thus Gorleben became a pawn in the hands of politicians and business leaders -- a fact that both characterizes and hampers the search for a permanent repository to this day.


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Graphic: Nuclear sites in Germany Zoom

Graphic: Nuclear sites in Germany