The World from Berlin 'The Most Problematic Nuclear Facility in Europe'

Leaking nuclear waste in a storage facility in Lower Saxony has raised the temperature of the conversation over nuclear power in Germany. Conservatives say nuclear power is safe and clean, but the Left is saying, 'I told you so.' But no one knows what to do about radioactive water leaking from the mine.

The trouble with nuclear waste is that it never goes away, German politicians are (re-)learning this week, after a status report on barrels of leaking nuclear waste in a storage facility based at a former salt rock and potash mine called Asse II in Lower Saxony. Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel, a Social Democrat, called the Asse mine "the most problematic nuclear facility in Europe."

Gabriel has sworn to work with rival politicians to secure the mine, but the interim report was dire enough for the Green Party's leader in the German parliament, Renate Künast, to lodge criminal complaints against the two government bureaus responsible -- the Helmholtz Center for Health and Environment and Lower Saxony's state mining office.

The Asse-II mine was closed in 1964 and converted to an "experimental" nuclear facility in 1967. Now it officially holds up to 130,000 metal drums of low- and mid-level radioactive waste. But the report said highly radioactive plutonium had also been dumped in the mine, along with a number of nuclear fuel rods. Radioactivity readings there are at eight times the "safe" level, some barrels have tipped over and rusted through, and the worry is that saltwater leaking from the mine is not just radioactive but might contaminate public water supplies. The mine has been known to leak brine since 1988. Some experts fear it may collapse altogether by 2014.

German papers on Wednesday aren't surprised, but they notice that the scandal won't help the cause of nuclear power in one of the most anti-nuclear nations in Europe -- especially since Asse-II was established for low-level radioactive waste, rather than for the far more dangerous disposal of nuclear fuel rods. The last nuclear power plant in Germany is slated to go dark by about 2020, but this nuclear phaseout has been debated along heavily partisan lines over the last three years.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Since the days of protesters' tent camps in Whyl, Gorleben and Wackersdorf (German nuclear power sites), Germany has been Europe's major center for nukes-no-thanks sentiment. But rising energy prices have changed the German mood. For many consumers, in light of their power bills, it seems illogical to willingly phase out nuclear power. The promises of the nuclear lobby -- that they produce clean, cheap energy -- look more and more alluring. But the Asse scandal has brought the nearly forgotten problem of nuclear waste back to center stage."

"Whether it's called a 'research' site or an 'experimental' site, it sounds as if Asse-II, which was supposed to be secure until the end of time, is no longer secure. And if it's not possible to secure relatively harmless, weakly radioactive waste, how can we trust in the secure disposal of fuel rods? Never mind how dangerous the groundwater leaking from the mine might be, and never mind how much hysteria and political calculation Asse-II inspires -- the mine demonstrates that even cheap energy has its price."

The conservative daily Die Welt argues:

"It's embarrassing enough to read about problems in a (West-)German nuclear site that seem more typical of countries from the former Soviet Union or other slum states. The scandal has to do with carelessly tipped-over vats of nuclear waste, which now threaten the groundwater -- low- and mid-level radioactive waste, for the most part. But nine kilograms of plutonium have somehow found their way into the mine, along with other material designated as nuclear fuel. Final resting place? Not really."

"German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel acts surprised and says the honesty of people now arguing over nuclear power has been damaged. No kidding. But did he just hear about the Asse mine yesterday? … The man who sat for all of the 1990s on an environmental committee in Lower Saxony? The man who became governor of Lower Saxony and then took up a position as national minister for the environment in 2005? Never heard of Asse-II? Maybe he shouldn't have taken on his job as a pop-culture liaison (in 2003), parallel to his other duties. The job seems to have overwhelmed him."

The left-wing daily Die Tageszeitung writes:

"When it comes to promoting an extension of nuclear power in Germany (beyond 2020), the (conservative) Christian Democrats are never at a loss for words. They call it safe, cheap and environmentally friendly. The risks never come up in conversation; other people need to worry about those."

"Typically, then, Christian Democrats have gone into hiding over the current problems with the Asse mine. Although the operator of this so-called 'experimental' site -- the Helmholtz Center -- works under the jurisdiction of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, the responsible minister, Dr. Annette Schavan, has so far not said a thing about the scandal."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"Trying to force a conclusion is the mark of shirtsleeve politics. What has Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel (a Social Democrat) been trying to prove for months? That the CDU and CSU (his rival Christian Democrats) are leading the nation to hell with their revival of support for nuclear power. And what conclusion does he draw from the new scandal over the Asse nuclear waste site? 'It's a worst-case disaster for the nuclear disposal debate.' With this sentence he wanted to strike everyone down -- at long last."

"But this worst-case rhetoric can't be taken so seriously. Otherwise the Social Democrats and the Greens wouldn't be so quick to assume responsibility for Asse II. Politicians, as a rule, don't stick out their hands to grab a truly hot potato."

-- Michael Scott Moore, 1p.m. CET

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