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

Germany has been looking for a permanent storage site for its nuclear waste for over 30 years. The history of the Gorleben salt dome, a potential nuclear repository, is one full of deception and political maneuvering. And if opponents to the plans have their way, the search might even have to start again from scratch.

By SPIEGEL Staff


The ride down into the Gorleben salt dome takes less than two minutes. When the elevator stops at 840 meters (2,755 feet) below ground, the folding gates open onto a scene that looks like it could be in a modern art museum.

A sculpture made of old soft drink cans and other scrap metal welcomes visitors as they step out of the elevator. The artwork is meant to symbolize society's unresolved waste disposal problem.

"Trash People" is the name of the work, a creation by the Cologne-based conceptual artist HA Schult. Of the army of similar scrap metal sculptures he installed a few years ago in the site, which is earmarked as a possible permanent repository for radioactive waste, one remains today as a warning, next to an information panel describing Schult's "happening," called "Quiet Days in Gorleben."

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: The Nuclear Option

The force behind the subversive artworks was Green Party politician Jürgen Trittin, who was German environment minister under former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's coalition government of the center-left Social Democrats and Green Party. But the art is not the only legacy of the SPD-Green Party era. What is more significant is the research moratorium that the former administration imposed on Gorleben in 2000, putting a stop to research into whether the salt dome was suitable for use as a storage site for nuclear waste.

The drilling machines have been idle since then, and life only returns to the site, which is located in the Wendland region of the northern state of Lower Saxony, when groups of visitors arrive. They are driven through the seemingly endless tunnels in a Mercedes SUV. Anyone who is so inclined can lick the grayish-white salt from the walls. It is apparently of the highest quality.

Bone of Contention

But now the new government plans to allow research activities to resume as soon as possible, and instead of artists and salt dome tourists, the site could soon be buzzing with geologists and nuclear physicists once again. Germany's new coalition government of the center-right Christian Democrats and the business-friendly Free Democrats wants to continue with research into the suitability of Gorleben as a national permanent repository for radioactive waste.

But that isn't likely to happen any time soon, because the SPD, the Greens and the Left Party will not hand over the salt dome to the conservatives without a fight. This month, they plan to petition for the establishment of an investigative committee to look at the Gorleben project. The issue of radioactive waste is set to become a major bone of contention between the government and the opposition.

As the petition states, the purpose of the investigative committee will be to uncover errors and omissions made over a period of three decades "as completely as possible," as well as to investigate "undue exertion of political influence" and "conflicts of interest within the federal government" due to its close ties to industry. Was political manipulation involved in the selection of Gorleben as a site? "The suspicions are very clear," says Sylvia Kotting-Uhl, the Green Party's nuclear policy spokeswoman, who initiated the investigative committee together with other members of her party.

Documents and studies from three decades will now be carefully scrutinized, as will the roles of a number of chancellors, state governors and cabinet ministers.

The commission will be asking a number of important questions. For instance, why did planners decide on Gorleben early on? Why weren't alternatives seriously considered, and why aren't they being considered today? And what happens if the salt dome turns out to be unsuitable?

Back to the Drawing Board

The fact-finding commission will do more than revisit the past. It also has the potential to disqualify Gorleben as a potential storage site once and for all, to take the search for permanent repositories back to the drawing board and put the brakes on the current administration's nuclear policy. The commission will be examining a decades-long history of trickery and deception. It will be confronting the lie that the German nuclear industry is based on, namely the constant postponement and suppression of its waste problem.

Previously unknown documents and interviews with contemporary witnesses already reveal that instead of geology and nuclear physics, partisan politics and power struggles shaped the search for permanent repositories from the start, which is why a feasible solution hasn't been found to this day. But the industry's spent fuel rods will have to be disposed of somewhere. Germany's mountain of radioactive waste, which is growing from one year to the next, cannot be kept in ordinary warehouses forever.

The Germany-based independent expert and research organization GRS, which analyses reactor safety, estimates that German atomic power plants consume about 400 tons of nuclear fuel per year, producing highly toxic waste that remains radioactive for thousands of years. If Germany's nuclear phase-out continues as planned, at least 17,200 tons of spent fuel rods will have to be disposed of, not to mention the irradiated tubes, filters and parts of the reactor vessels of decommissioned nuclear power plants.

In one of the two above-ground buildings at Gorleben, there are currently 3,500 steel, cast iron and concrete containers of mildly and moderately contaminated waste -- such as cleaning rags, radioactive sludge and moderately radioactive scrap metal -- which are scheduled to be buried in the Konrad repository in Lower Saxony soon. The second storage building contains 91 Castor, TS 28 V and TN85 metal containers of used fuel elements and reprocessing waste. This is highly radioactive waste that officials hope will eventually be permanently stored underground somewhere.

In the coming years, another 43 containers of highly radioactive waste from two reprocessing plants, La Hague in France and Sellafield in Great Britain, will be brought to the Gorleben depot on ships, trucks and trains. Because the transport of Castor containers had repeatedly been met with heated protests, the former SPD-Green Party government in 2002 ordered the nuclear industry to build interim storage sites for used fuel elements next to nuclear power plants, to reduce the need for shipments. As a result of this policy, a portion of Germany's radioactive waste is still being kept in 12 of these interim storage buildings, distributed throughout the country, pending the discovery and development of a permanent repository.

The Welfare of Future Generations

But where should the radioactive waste go? Two former environment ministers are at the center of this dispute, Angela Merkel and Sigmar Gabriel. Both know exactly how polarizing the subject of nuclear energy is. Now Merkel is the chancellor and Gabriel is the chairman of the SPD, and radioactive waste stands a good chance of becoming the focus of their rivalry.

Once again, politics, and not the welfare of future generations, is at the center of the nuclear waste issue. To protect those generations, a site must be found where radioactive waste can be allowed to slowly decay over hundreds of thousands of years, far away from any living creatures. This permanent repository will still have to be impervious in the year 8010, not to mention the year 308,010. Otherwise its contents could poison the living beings of the future if they discovered the contaminated containers, or the waste could gradually seep out and destroy the local environment.

The question, then, is why exactly Gorleben was chosen as the most suitable location to fulfill this role.

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