Abyss of Uncertainty Germany's Homemade Nuclear Waste Disaster

Some 126,000 barrels of nuclear waste have been dumped in the Asse II salt mine over the last 50 years. German politicians are 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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It's hot and sticky 750 meters (2,500 feet) underground, and the air smells salty. Five men are standing in front of an oversized drill. They have donned orange overalls and are wearing bulky special shoes, yellow hard hats and safety glasses. They turn on the machine, and the rod assembly slowly eats its way into a gray wall.

For over seven months now, the team has been trying to drill a hole with a diameter of eight centimeters (three inches). They are attempting to reach one of the former excavation chambers of Asse II, an old salt and potash mine near the northern German town of Remlingen, in the northwestern German state of Lower Saxony. Behind a barrier 20 meters thick, thousands of drums filled with nuclear waste have been rotting away for over three decades.

It's dangerous work. Over the years, experts warn, explosive gases may have collected in underground cavities -- and one spark could trigger a disaster. Consequently, the drill head is only allowed to turn extremely slowly. After the machine has barely advanced another 10 centimeters, the men pull the drill pipe out of the hole and insert a probe. They thus manage to inch their way forward about 20 centimeters per shift.

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.

It took two years to prepare this journey into the contaminated salt. Engineers had to redevelop measuring devices, design new machines and write computer programs. The men on the drilling team have volunteered for the job. They are working in a hermetically sealed space. To prevent any radioactive dust particles from reaching the rest of the mine, a constant vacuum is maintained here. There is special vinyl flooring that can be decontaminated, and the walls are lined with custom-made tiles.

German Environment Minister Peter Altmaier was on hand for the launch of the exploratory drilling on June 1, 2012. Since none of the available garb would fit him, two seamstresses had quickly sewn a white miner's outfit for the stout politician from Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Then Altmaier pressed a red button in a neighboring tunnel to symbolically start the drill.

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. And no one can say with certainty whether it will ever be completed.

The initial stage has already revealed that the intended retrieval of the drums is an expedition into the unknown. The team has driven the drill pipe 35 meters into the salt, yet after a good seven months of work, they still haven't found the chamber with the stored radioactive waste. Geologists now believe that it has been missed by roughly 2.5 meters because the mountain has a life of its own and changes shape as the salt shifts from south to north.

'Never Been Done Before'

That's the basic situation at Asse: On the one hand, there are the engineers who want to plan everything, who have to plan everything, who are not allowed to endanger anyone, who have to adhere to the rules of the Atomic Energy Act, who have to implement the government's plans and who should take into consideration the concerns of local residents. And, on the other hand, there are the forces of nature at work in a mine that does whatever it wants.

Germany's Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) has been responsible for Asse since 2009. This is an agency that was originally founded to monitor things such as the safety of workers in nuclear research facilities. In early 2010, the federal government ordered the BfS to assess whether the radioactive waste in the Asse mine can be retrieved. The agency estimated that it would take three years to prepare the project. Most recently, the BfS said it would need 10 years for the fact-finding phase alone.

The BfS still has no detailed concept for the retrieval, no timetable, no script that maps out the technical procedures. It's essentially a flight by the seat of the pants, and problems are encountered for which no solutions have been found anywhere in the world.

This is reminiscent of other large German infrastructure projects, in which everything during the construction phase turns out to be more difficult, time-consuming and expensive than anticipated. But the difference is that there are already plenty of underground railway stations, major international airports and concert halls around the globe. Removing nuclear waste from a flooding, collapsing salt mine, though, represents a unique challenge. "What we intend to do here has never been done before," says Jens Köhler, the technical director at Asse.

Massive Environmental Scandal

The decision to retrieve the drums was primarily motivated by politics. It was taken because politicians have a bad conscience about how they have treated their constituents. The public was originally informed that Asse was merely being used to "research" how radioactive waste reacts in a final repository. But then nuclear power plants, nuclear research facilities, the German military, medical institutions and industry used the old mine as a dump for all manner of contaminated waste. The federal government collected disposal fees, and for decades ministers in Bonn, Berlin and the nearby city of Hanover, the state capital, blithely disregarded the problem.

The public finally rebelled against this ignorance in 2007, when the former operator of the storage site, the Munich-based German Research Center for Environmental Health (HMGU), 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. 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.

Under the so-called grand coalition of the CDU and the left-leaning Social Democrats, which governed between 2005 and 2009, Sigmar Gabriel (SPD), who hails from this region, used his position as federal environment minister to push through a change in management -- transferring responsibility from the HMGU to the BfS -- and pledged that the waste would be retrieved. "Money will be no object," he said.

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, 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.

Consequently, there will be a great deal of talk, and many articles, about Lex Asse this week. Politicians will pat themselves on the back and praise the future. But this won't put an end to the debate over retrieval. The new law will perhaps give politicians some breathing room, and remove the issue of Assa from all the campaigning leading up to the general election scheduled for September.

But the debate will resurface with every additional delay, every cost overrun, every bit of geological bad news and every internal report that questions the project's chances of success or the logic of retrieving the nuclear waste. The people who live in Germany's northern Harz mountain range have grown edgy due to Asse's misuse as a nuclear waste repository, and they feel that they have been lied to and deceived. They also realize that many officials at the BfS, the Federal Environment Ministry and the licensing agencies think the retrieval project is absolutely insane.


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