Search for German repository site starts again

10 April 2013

Germany will launch a new site selection process for a repository to hold the country's radioactive waste under a compromise agreement between the federal and state governments and opposition parties.

The federal environment ministry (BMU) announced that, under the agreement reached yesterday, a draft repository site selection bill will be introduced to the German parliament's lower house, the Bundestag, as soon as possible and is intended to be passed before the parliamentary summer recess in early July.


Gorleben site (Image: BfS)

Exploration work on the Gorleben rock salt formation began in 1977. The federal government gave its approval for underground exploration at the site in 1983, and excavation work began with the sinking of the first of two shafts in 1986.

Work continued until June 2000 when, alongside plans for the eventual phaseout of nuclear power in Germany, a three- to ten-year moratorium was imposed on the Gorleben exploration work.

However, this moratorium was lifted in March 2010 by the then more pro-nuclear coalition government led by Angela Merkel.

The draft law calls for the formation of a 24-member federal-state commission to develop proposals on safety requirements and site selection criteria by the end of 2015. The Bundestag will take decisions on the individual steps of the site selection process, including decisions on locations for above- and underground site surveys. The commission will recommend a repository site to parliament by 2031. The proposal calls for the repository to be built by 2040.

The parties also agreed that, for the time being, no more radioactive waste would be transported to the Gorleben salt dome in Lower Saxony state, which has been under investigation as a potential repository site. Site suitability work at Gorleben will be terminated and a research laboratory will not be built there. However, Gorleben will not be excluded from the new site selection process. German nuclear waste currently stored abroad is to be taken to other interim storage sites in Germany. No high-level waste will be exported for final disposal.

Federal environment minister Peter Altmaier commented, "With today's agreement we have achieved a breakthrough, after the phase-out of nuclear energy, to solve the search for a repository by society-wide consensus. Thus, we will now end the decades-old conflict over a nuclear repository."

He added, "The agreement across party lines and geographies has become possible because all participants were aware of their responsibility and are, or have shown willingness, to compromise in the spirit of consensus."

Who will pay?

Altmaier said that the country's nuclear power plant operators will have to pay some €2.0 billion ($2.6 billion) for selecting and constructing a waste repository.

"The cost of dealing with nuclear waste will be borne by those who produce it," he told Germany's N24 television. "In the end, it is also in the interests of the nuclear operators that we identify a repository."

While describing the agreement as "fundamentally positive," industry group the German Atomic Forum (Deutsches Atomforum, DAtF) noted that over €1.6 billion ($2.1 billion) has already been invested in the study of Gorleben as a repository site. It added that there is no legal basis in requiring operators to provide additional funds for the investigation of alternative sites before a final assessment on the suitability of Gorleben has been made.

DAtF called for a "constructive dialog" between federal and state governments and the nuclear operators "to reach responsible and targeted solutions."

Currently, German radioactive waste is placed in interim storage, with used fuel mostly stored at reactor sites. Most German used fuel is to be reprocessed overseas. Vitrified high-level wastes arising from reprocessing contracts signed up to 1989 is stored in surface facilities at Gorleben and Ahaus. Work began in 2007 on the conversion of a former iron ore mine at Konrad in Lower Saxony into a repository for low- and intermediate-level waste which is planned to be in operation around 2014.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News