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.
Mountains of Red Tape
Which is the better solution? Gradually bringing the nuclear waste out of the mine or basically entombing the stuff underground? Jens Köhler, 47, is a mining engineer. He has built tunnels in the Alps, in China and in India, but he refuses to answer this question. The Asse boss says that he is doing the job that the politicians have given him -- and that job is to stabilize the mine so the waste can be removed.
Köhler exchanges the traditional German miners' greeting -- Glück auf! ("Good luck!") -- with everyone that he meets underground. When he hears a noise coming from the tunnel roof, he stops to listen: "Ahhh, my favorite sound," he says. The noise means that the "system is running," and that special concrete is being pumped into the dilapidated tunnels.
Indeed, in addition to having 126,000 drums filled with radioactive refuse, Asse's system of tunnels, which resembles the architecture of an anthill, is in danger of collapsing.
"This is a totally ramshackle construction," says Köhler. For decades, the tunnels were allowed to fall into decay because the facility was about to be closed. In order to at least get some forewarning of an impending collapse, engineers have installed a micro-seismic system, the first of its kind anywhere. Twenty-eight monitoring stations register even the minutest tremors in the mine. Even a dropped hammer will be caught by the sensors.
Last year, the "Spiral," a kind of serpentine road between the tunnels, collapsed. It's the "lifeblood" of the facility, explains Köhler. It took months to dig a new tunnel into the salt.
Köhler is in a race against time, and the engineer has no idea whether he can win it. Until now, though, Asse has primarily been a bureaucratic monster for him. "The approval processes are extremely demanding," Köhler says pointedly, referring to the nerve-racking red tape. Each new step in the work involves dozens of binders with permits, assessments and statements.
Some things have to be approved by the Environment Ministry of Lower Saxony, some by the state mining agency. And Altmaier's Federal Environment Ministry lords above it all as the supreme supervisory authority. Before the first test drilling could begin in mid-2012, it took two-and-a-half years and required 18,000 sheets of paper for licensing documents -- enough to make a stack as high as the mining tower at Asse.
When it was decided to retrieve the 126,000 drums, the BfS made a video that demonstrated how easy the job would be: It showed how robots would collect the barrels, compress them or wrap them in foil, and then bring them up to the surface. The video claimed that the operation would be completed by 2025, at the latest.
Now, it's clear that it won't be possible to retrieve even a single drum during the current decade. The salvage operation will mainly require the construction of an additional system of tunnels -- basically a new mine next to the old one -- and this primarily presents a moral dilemma for environmentalists.
When workers began to clear a forest for the construction of a new mineshaft, they came across a pond where they discovered an egg mass of an amphibian that is on the list of critically endangered species in Lower Saxony. The agile frog (Rana dalmatina) is also on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Now, a plan is needed to save this population -- along with a rescue operation for the bulbs of rare flowers, such as the martagon lily and the spring snowflake.
The new mineshaft won't be operational before 2025. To make matters worse, there are still no plans for a packing facility or for an immense hangar in which up to 50,000 cubic meters (1.8 million cubic feet) of radioactive waste -- and just as much contaminated salt -- could be stored following retrieval.
Asse is a prime example of the emotional nature of environmental issues. The saltwater that has been permanently dripping into the mining galleries for the past 25 years is captured long before it comes in contact with the storage drums. There is actually no reason why the liquid couldn't be dumped into the North Sea, but water from Asse has an image problem. Nobody wants it -- unless they get something in return. Consequently, the pure saltwater is trucked over 100 kilometers (62 miles) to the former salt mine of Mariaglück, which is being flooded anyway. The owner of this mine, the K+S Group, has taken in roughly €1 million since 2009 in exchange for accepting the unproblematic water from Asse.
Hoodwinked for 40 Years
When Udo Dettmann, 40, looks out his window, he sees railroad tracks that pass directly by his house on the way to Asse. The tracks, where freight trains transporting salt from the mine rolled until 1964, play an important role in the life of this engineer. As a child, the overgrown rail corridor was a big playground for him, but today he also appreciates the railroad bed. "I can chain myself to the rails," he says "if they decide to ship the magnesium chloride for flooding Asse."
Dettmann is the chairman of the Asse II Coordination Group, placing him at the heart of all public protests. The people in the Coordination Group are neither professional protesters nor obstinate ideologues, and they don't automatically reject things that could be uncomfortable.
Dettmann's cousin used to work at Asse. It was seen as an attractive job. Back when the area was an isolated corner of West Germany, not far from the border with East Germany, many of the locals saw the research facility as their ticket to getting ahead. Asse offered jobs, growth and the promise of a brighter future. Children's birthdays could be celebrated with a guided underground tour of the mine, and the HMGU invited local politicians to Munich for Oktoberfest. And since nuclear waste doesn't stink, doesn't cloud the air and doesn't leave any visible traces, Dettmann says that they put any possible dangers "out of their minds" at the time.
It wasn't until someone attending a wedding talked about how water had rushed in and the mine was in danger of flooding that a group of local residents decided to inform themselves -- and finally realized "that we had been taken for a ride here for 40 years," says Dettmann.
Even if the Bundestag passes the Lex Asse in March, the mistrust will remain. As Marcus Bosse, a local state parliamentarian with the SPD, puts it, there are "too many moles" in the key institutions who oppose retrieving the waste. Bosse believes a handful of officials and consultants have turned out to be foot-draggers. They are employees of the BfS and consultants for the Federal Environment Ministry -- and they have all spoken out in favor of flooding the mine.
Bosse sees the responsible department head at the Federal Environment Ministry, Gerald Hennenhöfer, as someone who is particularly determined to drag things out.
Hennenhöfer, a lawyer by trade, has a reputation for being not only the government's most experienced nuclear expert, but also an advocate of nuclear power. The ministerial director of Asse officially deigned to only say a few sober words: "We bear a heavy responsibility and feel obliged to the people in the region and their desire for retrieval," he said. At the same time, he added, the ministry will have to bear in mind all risks. "We are bound by law to do this," he concluded.
This éminence grise's degree of skepticism toward the intentions of Germany's politicians can be largely interpreted from instructions that were sent to the BfS in March 2010: Retrieval would only be the best solution "under certain circumstances," it said. It concluded that the BfS should "immediately" proceed with "measures for the secure storage of the radioactive waste in the subterranean cavities."
Among the local politicians throughout the Asse region, there are many who are calling for Hennenhöfer's resignation because he decides who gets appointed to all higher positions at the BfS. He also monitors the Asse operator and keeps the agency busy jumping through bureaucratic hoops. From December 2008 to December 2012, the ministry sent over 160 regulatory demands to the BfS in addition to all the requested reports.
Regardless of which politician one asks in the region -- the district administrator, the CDU state parliamentarian or his SPD colleague -- they are all shocked over the bureaucrats' apparent efforts to play for time. Dorothée Menzner, a member of the Bundestag Environment Committee for the far-left Left Party, has personally experienced this with Peter Hart from the department for nuclear supply and disposal at the Environment Ministry: "He rejected every proposal to speed up the retrieval," she says. "All he would say was: not possible, not possible. So I asked him to tell me what is possible."
Menzner stops short of saying that Environment Minister Altmaier has no intention of retrieving the Asse waste. But she certainly asks herself whether he can assert himself in his own ministry. "Much of the mind-set that resulted in extending the life spans of nuclear power plants over two years ago is still present," she says.
Suspicions of Back-Tracking
But perhaps the political failure is of an entirely different sort. Last year, one of the top people at the BfS quit the agency to work for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) -- and he left with a bang: Michael Siemann, the project manager for the retrieval, said on television that a safe retrieval of the waste was, in his opinion, unrealistic for technical reasons. "Many people know this, but no one wants to say it," he noted, out of fear of bad press and incurring the wrath of the public. The geochemist said that, in view of the decrepit condition of the tunnels and the lack of robotic technology, he felt that there was neither the time nor the means to safely bring the waste aboveground. But, he added, politicians don't want to hear this.
Back in 2011, Siemann summarized the difficulties in an internal memo and recommended that the agency "already now make the professional and communicative preparations to abandon the 'retrieval' project."
To Dettmann, the protest coordinator, every statement like this, every complication, every delay serves as further evidence that "in reality, they don't want to take the stuff out." In fact, the activist and his like-minded friends are asking themselves where the loopholes in the new law are. With the aid of their legal counsel, they have carefully weighed and dissected the text. In a minor fit of paranoia, they are now even wondering whether the Lex Asse will pave the way for a legally airtight way of abandoning the retrieval. Indeed, the current draft law states that increased contamination when recovering the waste has to be weighed against the risks of leaving it underground.
Dettmann feels torn. They are finally getting their law -- but they just can't shake off their suspicions. The activist estimates that there's a 75 percent chance that Asse will one day be free of nuclear waste. "But if we stop here with our citizens' initiative," he says, "that figure will sink to zero percent."
Fighting Ignorance and Disinformation
These days, it isn't easy to work as a professor for medical physics and radiation protection. "After Fukushima, it was often unbearable to hear the nonsense that was disseminated about nuclear radiation, even by reputable television stations," says Joachim Breckow. As the president of the German-Swiss Radiation Protection Association (FS), an organization with over 1,400 members working in research, industry and government agencies, he is faced with a choice: Should he simply keep his mouth shut and marvel at so much misinformation and ignorance? Or should he try to educate the public?
Last fall, Breckow, 58, decided it was finally time to speak out. The topic was Asse. He urged Germany to put a stop to the concept of retrieval because, in his opinion, it is "probably not the best solution." This gave the citizens' initiatives yet another perceived enemy.
The professor has his office on the ninth floor of the THM University of Applied Sciences in Giessen, Hesse. Breckow says that using Asse as the nation's radioactive toilet has been "an absolutely appalling mess." As a result, he says that researchers and the nuclear industry -- but also radiation-protection experts -- have lost much of their credibility, and he concludes that this is precisely why they "finally must be honest." He says that it's time to go against the current "instead of simply swimming along."
Breckow argues that radiation-protection experts should help ensure that people's exposure is kept to an absolute minimum. But the biophysicist contends that the current planning by politicians will actually increase the risks.
He says that it is "simply naïve to believe" that machines alone could remove the nuclear waste from the mine. He adds that nuclear radiation would also be released during the transport and packaging of the rusting drums. Furthermore, he points out that a colossal intermediate storage area would have to be built, presumably the largest in Germany, and protected from airplane crashes and terrorist attacks. All of this could be avoided, he says, if at least a large proportion of the waste were simply left in the mine. He calls this the lesser of two evils.
Breckow says that, as a radiation-protection expert, he is not allowed to "play anything down," but he is allowed to make calculations and then give his recommendations. It's a matter of balancing everyone's interests, and it currently clearly weighs against retrieval.
The scientist makes the following calculation: Even in the case of "an uncontrollable influx of solvents" -- in other words, if Asse became completely flooded -- many decades in the future, the population would be subject to a maximum radiation exposure of 0.1 millisievert, which corresponds to 3 percent of the annual exposure from naturally occurring radiation. The local population would, at most, have to avoid drinking water from the area.
Anyone who is given a standard X-ray, Breckow explains, is exposed to roughly 0.5 millisievert -- or five times the annual "Asse dosage." Anyone who has themselves examined using computer tomography is exposed to 10 millisievert. To put it another way, anyone who lives for 100 years in the region surrounding a mine like Asse that is filling up with water would receive the same amount of radiation as from 20 conventional X-rays or one computer tomography during the course of their entire lifetime. Such comparisons are necessary, says Breckow, in order to "understand the radiation exposure."