Gorleben shuts after exclusion from repository site search

20 September 2021

The former salt mine in Gorleben, Lower Saxony - previously considered a possible site for geological disposal of Germany's high-level radioactive waste - has officially closed, it was announced on 17 September. The site was excluded from a list of potential repository sites published last year by waste management organisation Bundesgesellschaft für Endlagerung (BGE).

The former Gorleben salt mine (Image: BGE)

Following an exhaustive site selection process, the state government of Lower Saxony in 1977 declared the salt dome at Gorleben in the Wendland region to be the location for a national centre for disposal of radioactive waste. It was also under consideration as a possible site for geological disposal of high-level waste. The decision was highly unpopular with local residents. Work stopped in 2002 due to political edict, but in October 2010 the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS), on behalf of the federal government, applied to resume studies and extend the operating licence to 2020.

In July 2014, the federal government and the state government of Lower Saxony agreed that the mine building that had been kept in operation and the surface installations would be scaled back to just the size needed to keep the mine open. In addition, the safety installations were reduced to the level of a normal industrial facility. Underground, the areas that were no longer needed in order to keep the mine open have been decommissioned and sealed off. Machinery and vehicles that were no longer needed have been brought above ground and withdrawn from service.

On 28 September last year, BGE published a list of potential storage sites for Germany's radioactive waste. The list followed parliament's approval three years earlier for a science-based search for a site. It identifies 90 areas covering 54% of the country's surface area as potentially geologically suitable. After the application of minimum requirements and exclusion criteria, 139 salt domes were initially under consideration as a repository site. However, the Gorleben salt dome and 78 other salt domes were excluded from the site selection process by applying the geoscientific weighing criteria. BGE is currently preparing the further investigations of the 90 sub-areas, including 60 salt domes.

Since the exclusion last year of Gorleben, BGE and the Federal Environment Ministry (BMU) have "examined how to proceed" with the mine, a joint statement said from BMU, the Lower Saxony Ministry for the Environment, Energy, Building and Climate Protection, the Federal Office for the Safety of Nuclear Waste Management and BGE. "BMU has now decided to commission BGE with the decommissioning of the mine."

"In the site selection process, the repository site should be found with the best possible safety. It is already clear that the Gorleben salt dome is not [suitable]," said State Secretary at the Environment Ministry Jochen Flasbarth. "Since the BGE interim report, it has been scientifically proven that there are many geologically more suitable locations. The Gorleben repository chapter will be closed from today.

"This ends the chapter on the Gorleben repository. I hope in Wendland wounds opened by the decades-long argument over Gorleben will now be able to heal. Gorleben stood for a major social conflict in Germany for over three decades."

BGE Chairman Stefan Studt added: "BGE is pleased that it has received the order to close the Gorleben mine. This brings an end to a chapter that was also painful for the workforce at our predecessor company. Our colleagues here were just as caught up in the storm as many of the actors in the region."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News