Many commentators have criticized the German election campaign as being tepid so far. But now the heat has been turned up after damaging new allegations regarding dubious practices in the search for a permanent nuclear waste disposal site in Germany.
On Wednesday, Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel confirmed the existence of a telex message showing that the government of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl doctored a report in order to play down the risks of a proposed nuclear waste storage site in Gorleben in Lower Saxony. Gabriel called the revelation a "downright scandal."
Gabriel, a member of the center-left Social Democrats, accused politicians from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) of tampering with documents in the 1980s which examined the safety of the Gorleben salt mine as a permanent storage site for nuclear waste. Gabriel said politicians tried to cover up warnings that radioactive material could seep into groundwater, an issue that was played down in the final report. Opponents of nuclear energy have long alleged that Gorleben was chosen as a long-term storage site for political reasons before its safety had been properly determined and that alternative locations were not given proper consideration.
Gabriel's allegations shine an unwelcome spotlight on Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was environment minister under Kohl in the 1990s and is currently running for a second term as chancellor. In reponse, Merkel has pledged to review all Gorleben files going back to the 1980s.
But on Thursday, Germany's Federal Office for Radiation Protection, which runs the test facility at Gorleben, spoke out against the site's suitability as a permanent waste depository. "The feeling of confidence that there was an unbiased procedure (to choose a location for long-term storage) has now been destroyed," the organization's president, Wolfram König, said in an interview with the daily Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung in which he called for a new "transparent and fair" process to choose a permanent storage location. In recent comments to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, König said that the Gorleben site "always had a birth defect."
The latest documents have been made public at a sensitive time, with political campaigning in full swing ahead of the Sept. 27 general election. Given that nuclear energy is an issue close to the heart of many German voters, the allegations provide valuable ammunition for the SPD, which is currently trailing badly in the polls. Merkel has already been put on the defensive regarding her plans to extend the operating life of nuclear reactors following an accident at the Krümmel nuclear power plant in July and further safety risks at the Asse nuclear storage site. Germany committed itself to phasing out nuclear power during former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's term in office, but in recent years there has been a renewed debate about a possible comeback for nuclear power in Germany.
German media commentators on Thursday mull the scandal's possible political repercussions and the future of the troubled storage site -- an issue which will loom large for whichever government coalition takes power after the election.
The Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"It is, without a doubt, hair raising and unforgivable when an issue relating to health and safety is decided on a political rather than a scientific basis. ... The scandal will have a notable effect on public perception of nuclear energy, and that will have a direct impact on the chances of Angela Merkel's CDU being able to form a coalition with their preferred partner, the business-friendly Free Democratic Party, after the election."
"With last weekend's unusually well attended demonstration against nuclear power, it became apparent that this is one of the very few issues that the SPD can use to mobilize voters ... and to distinguish themselves from their Christian Democratic opponents ... If the CDU and the FDP want to ward off an anti-nuclear election campaign, they need to finally step up as problem-solvers."
The regional newspaper Stuttgarter Zeitung writes:
"There are situations where there is no option except to try to escape by moving forward. Clearly Angela Merkel has realized that her party is in such a situation given its commitment to Gorleben as the only long-term disposal site for radioactive waste. Now all she can do is to offer a thorough explanation and plan her political U-turn. The accusations that the Kohl government pressured scientific experts will not go away easily. There have been too many dirty details emerging over the past weeks ... for that to happen."
"All the Christian Democrats can do is look for other possible storage sites. It may be annoying that the tireless SPD election campaigner Sigmar Gabriel has resorted to tricks to convey these findings. But the fact remains that their past failings are now coming back to haunt the CDU."
The right-leaning Die Welt writes:
"Scientific authorities need to be given freedom. There is a whiff of an authoritarian state around if ministers think they can influence their findings. The communications which have been revealed to have taken place between the various ministries can be seen as downright scandalous. The documents show that the minister responsible for the study wanted to put a greater focus on the experts' results and play down the counter-arguments which were also included in the paper. It was an exercise in sugarcoating the results ... and it is a political scandal. However the study did not reveal any new geological data about the suitability of Gorleben as a long-term storage site."
"Gabriel has now announced that another permanent storage site which is better than Gorleben has to be found by 2026. He believes that time is on his side. In the meantime, the rest of the world is building new nuclear power stations."
The left-leaning Frankfurter Rundschau writes:
"Now even the chancellor has to admit that the Gorleben story is getting more and more hazardous. Angela Merkel, who as a former environment minister is very familar with this issue, is now pulling the emergency brake. She says she wants to fully investigate the dubious process by which Gorleben was chosen as the location for a nuclear waste disposal site. It's good that she is doing this, as it is the minimum which now needs to be done."
"Gorleben's 'birth defect' is now so obvious that it can no longer be chosen as Germany's long-term storage site -- even if as much as 1.5 billion has already been ploughed into the sand, or rather the salt. The disposal of nuclear waste is so important that really only the best sites should be considered. Given all that we know about Gorleben, it can not be in the running. The right step to take would be to begin a new search for a permanent storage site and to carry it out openly, transparently and according to scientific criteria. That will be a job for the new government, irrespective of who is the new chancellor."