Inside Gorleben A Visit to Germany's Proposed Nuclear Waste Site

Will an exploration mine in Gorleben become Germany's permanent nuclear waste dump? After a 10-year moratorium on research on the project, the government in Berlin is preparing to resume work. It will likely still take years before the site is approved for storage. SPIEGEL ONLINE took a peek inside a mine that has been the source of protests for years.



Few would expect the gray-haired gentleman standing at the barbed wire fence to offer much by way of compromise. "I have been challenging this from the very beginning," says a calm but firm Andreas Graf von Bernstorff. The count, also his family's patriarch and the head of Gartow Palace in the town of the same name in the western German state of Lower Saxony, has been fighting this battle for more than three decades. The man, educated in forestry, has been wrangling with the possibility that the salt dome in nearby Gorleben could one day be filled in with nuclear waste.

Large salt reserves located directly at the site where the German government is conducting feasiblity research for the potential Gorleben nuclear waste repository belong to Bernstorff. As one of the organizers of the local oppositon to the repository, Bernstorff, wearing a corduroy jacket, plays an important role in the controversial project.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's government -- comprised of her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union and the business-friendly Free Democrats -- has decided to resume work deep within the Gorleben mine. The policy shift will end a 10-year moratorium on work at the site, negotiated as part of the plan to phase out nuclear power by the left-leaning Social Democratic-Green Party coalition government under former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Schröder was voted out of office in 2005, but his party continued as the junior partner in a grand coalition with Merkel's conservatives and managed to prevent work at Gorleben until the Social Democrats lost power in national elections in September 2009.

Feasibility research at the exploration mine is now expected to resume on the basis of an operating permit issued in 1983. "Everyone is aware of the fact that we need a final repository for nuclear waste," Bernstorff says as he walks through the forest. But he says the geological conditions at Gorleben make it an inappropriate location for the site.

'Stop the Dirty Nuclear Business'

Banners hang between the trees. "Stop the dirty nuclear business," reads one. Across the way there is a clear view of the mine's blocky gray shaft tower. Three crosses and a lavishly carved totem pole stand between the trees. An Indian placed a curse on the land a while back, the count says with a smile.

At the moment, all signals seem to indicate that this curse will ultimately bring a permanent radioactive waste dump to the area. "I still have hope that people will reconsider and also look into other similar locations," says Bernstorff. But the German government has no such plans at the moment. Proponents of the Gorleben site instead point out that €1.5 billion ($1.9 billion) has already been invested into research at the salt deposit. They argue that looking elsewhere makes no economic sense.

A trip below ground shows the extent to which the exploratory mining at the site has been pursued, but also how much work still remains to be done. Friendly employees of the German Company for the Construction and Operation of Waste Repositories (DBE) and the German Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS), which are responsible for the site, love to drive visitors around the mine's tunnels in open Mercedes jeeps. The Lions Club of nearby Lüneburg visited recently, police from Hamburg, motor sports fans from the eastern German town of Wittenberge -- and right now there's a delegation here from Swedish-owned nuclear power plant operator Vattenfall wearing red overalls.

It takes about a minute and a half for the elevator to descend the 840 meters (2,755 feet) down to the first research area in the mine. The air is dry and it smells faintly reminiscent of a seaside holiday. There are seven kilometers (4.3 miles) of roads carved into the salt. The miners have also drilled a total of 11 kilometers of research cores into the rock. "The storage level will ultimately be located about 40 meters deeper," says BfS' Florian Emrich.

The first impression from inside the mine is one of relative order -- far less cluttered than in the neraby Asse salt mine, where 126,000 barrels of radioactive waste (some of which are leaking) are stored. If you run your finger along the white wall and lick it, you can taste the salt. "Add some water and it would be perfect for cooking spaghetti," quips geologist Ralf Schmitt of DBE. Gorleben fans also like to point out that the salt would do an especially good job of absorbing the heat of the nuclear waste containers.


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