Popular Fears Trump Science Europe's Nuclear Waste Conundrum

A new study has found that large swaths of Germany could be suitable to store highly radioactive nuclear waste. But that doesn't mean the problem is any closer to being solved.

It was a headline that likely unnerved a number of anti-nuclear activists in Germany. The Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources on Wednesday released a report indicating that a large chunk of northern Germany, and a bit of the south as well, is geologically suitable for the indefinite storage of highly radioactive nuclear waste.

The study drew no conclusions about the appropriateness of specific locations; rather it focused on those places with layers of clay at least 100 meters (328 feet) thick and at a depth of 300 to 1,000 meters. The report follows two earlier investigations identifying regions of salt-stone and granite which might also lend themselves to storing highly radioactive waste. Germany, it seems -- even as it continues to follow a policy of backing away from nuclear power -- has no shortage of sites suitable to be transformed into radioactive cemeteries.

Nevertheless, the report is sure to add fuel to an ongoing smoldering debate in Germany and across Europe about what to do with highly radioactive nuclear waste. On the one hand, activists hold up waste storage as one of the primary dangers represented by atomic power. After all, used up fuel rods and other waste remain "hot" for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years. How can one be sure today, many wonder, that facilities built today won't fall apart in 300,000 years?

On the other hand, scientists claim that most of the tricky scientific questions pertaining to long-term nuclear waste storage have been answered and that safe storage is possible. Now, they say, it is up to the politicians.

"Because there isn't a final storage facility, one could come to the conclusion that the problem hasn't been solved," Dr. Thomas Fanghaenel, director of the Institute for Transuranium Elements in Karlsruhe, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "That would be the wrong conclusion…. I think the political problems are the most difficult -- the 'not in my backyard' phenomenon and other socio-political problems."

"A different time scale"

"Another problem," he continued, "is the time issue. If you decide today on a storage facility, then it won't be finished for another 20 years and that is simply a different time scale than we are used to in political life. There is not a very big motivation for politicians to make a decision."

A prime example of such political difficulties is the Gorleben nuclear storage research site in the German state of Lower Saxony. For years, the site -- bored into a massive underground formation of salt stone, a material Wednesday's report found better suited to nuclear storage than clay -- has been an object of intense research with an eye toward eventually turning it into a final repository. Indeed, the site was first chosen three decades ago in 1977.

Although experts believe that Gorleben is the best -- and best researched -- site in Germany for such a repository, the final decision remains on hold. All research was halted in 2000 and has yet to resume today -- largely because of the numerous political challenges mounted against the site.

Wednesday's study comes at a time when pressure is growing in Germany to revisit the decision to shut down all nuclear reactors in the country by 2020. With increasing attention being paid to global warming resulting from CO2 emissions, conservatives in Berlin would like to see nuclear energy -- which emits no CO2 -- remain an important part of Germany's energy mix. Nuclear energy is likewise experiencing a renaissance across Europe and indeed globally,  meaning adequate storage of spent fuel rods promises to increase in importance.

In Europe, the problem is magnified by a lack of a European Union-wide policy, meaning each country is responsible for disposing of its own highly radioactive nuclear waste. But given the relatively small amounts of such waste -- highly radioactive waste represents a very small portion of all radioactive waste produced -- one or two larger repositories would be plenty for the entire 27-member club, argues Fanghaenel.

Bunch of mini-repositories

"If you look at it from a distance," he says, "it makes absolutely no sense for each country to have its own facility. It would be really absurd, for example, for Belgium to build its own repository. Europe only needs one or two. We are talking about huge amounts of time here, and at some point there won't be any more borders like we now know them and then there will be a whole bunch of mini repositories."

By far the greatest hurdle to establishing final waste repositories in Europe, however, remains public acceptance. According to an EU report from January, 2005, even though experts have little doubt about the safety of storing high-level radioactive waste, "there continues to be opposition from large sectors of the public to most proposals concerning the siting of repositories."

Marilyn Carruthers, EU spokeswoman for energy issues, concurs. Even as she points out that Finland has been able to agree on a site which will be operational by 2020 and that Sweden isn't far behind, removing public fears about radioactive waste remains a challenge.

"Achieving acceptance by politicians and the local public over the choice of suitable sites is not easy, and this has largely been the reason for the delays in most national programs," Carruthers wrote in an e-mail to SPIEGEL ONLINE. "The single key issue for implementing a waste strategy and especially for establishing a geological repository is public acceptance."

Germany's Ministry of Economics welcomed the report on Wednesday as providing clarity about Germany's geological suitability for highly radioactive nuclear waste. A spokesman also demanded that research at Gorleben be immediately continued, given the study's finding that clay is inferior to salt stone for waste storage.

Further studies, though, will no doubt be necessary to determine where the socio-political conditions might allow for such a repository.

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