Photo Gallery Germany's Nuclear Waste Headache

Some 126,000 barrels of nuclear waste have been dumped in the Asse II salt mine over the last 50 years. German politicians are now pushing for a law promising their removal. But the safety, technical and financial hurdles are enormous, and experts warn that removal is more dangerous than leaving them put.
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German has a major nuclear waste problem. For almost 50 years, the former Asse II salt mine in the northwestern state of Lower Saxony has been used as an underground repository for nuclear and other harmful waste. Some 126,000 barrels of nuclear waste are in the massive mine complex. To make matters worse, the system of tunnels is in danger of collapsing.

Foto: A9999 Schachtanlage Asse/ dpa
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The public rebelled in 2007 when the Munich-based German Research Center for Environmental Health (HMGU), the body then responsible for overseeing the site, decided to flood the tunnels with a magnesium chloride solution. Local residents were afraid that filling the cavities could allow radioactive substances to seep into the drinking water supply. The concern was that contaminated water could reach the Elbe River and spread as far as Hamburg.

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Citizens' initiatives were formed, internal papers were leaked, an investigative committee pored through thousands of binders -- and it all resulted in the biggest environmental scandal in postwar German history. Now, all political parties firmly believe that the only acceptable message to local residents is the promise to retrieve the drums of radioactive waste.

Foto: Joerg Sarbach/ AP
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For over seven months, workers have been slowly drilling a hole through the salt to try to reach a former excavation chamber of Asse II. Behind a barrier 20 meters (66 feet) thick, thousands of drums filled with nuclear waste have been rotting away for over three decades.

Foto: Jochen L¸bke/ dpa
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The drilling ultimately aims to provide a glimpse of the first of 13 chambers filled with barrels of waste, and to provide information on the condition of these containers -- and on what measures need to be taken to remove them from the 100-year-old maze of tunnels.

Foto: dapd
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German Environment Minister Peter Altmaier (right) was on hand for the launch of the exploratory drilling on June 1, 2012. At that moment, Germany cast itself into one of the most technically ambitious, and thus most costly, ventures of its industrial history -- a bold, perhaps foolhardy, project that will consume at least €4 billion ($5.3 billion), but more likely somewhere between €5 billion and €10 billion. It's a decontamination project that will take 30 years, or longer.

Foto: dapd
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German politicians have even agreed to enshrine the retrieval of the Asse nuclear waste in Germany's Atomic Energy Act. This is intended to speed up the highly demanding and arduous licensing process currently required by this legislation. On Wednesday, February 20, 2013, there was a hearing before the Environmental Committee of the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, on the "Lex Asse," to be followed by the final semantic revisions. The Bundestag plans to pass the bill into law before Easter.

Foto: Peter Steffen/ picture alliance / dpa
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While environmental and local groups hope the law will guarantee that the waste is removed from the mine, many politicians and experts believe that taking it out presents more dangers than just leaving it in the mine. Joachim Breckow, president of the German-Swiss Radiation Protection Association (FS), says that X-rays and computer tomography expose people to much more radiation that a lifetime of living near the mine.

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