German nuclear waste storage site developed illegally?

The salt dome at the Gorleben nuclear waste depot in north Germany was developed illegally into a permanent storage facility, claims a newspaper, citing an internal assessment by the government agency that runs the depot.

After first refusing to say whether the internal assessment exists, the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) now denies that the salt deposit has already been made a final repository.

And it’s also emerged that Angela Merkel, now German chancellor (prime minister), in 1996 ignored scientific warnings by the environment ministry she then headed that keeping nuclear waste in the Gorleben salt was likely to contaminate regional drinking water supplies.

Since work began on the underground facility in the 1980s, only permission for “exploration” has been granted.

The daily Frankfurter Rundschau of 28 May alleged that without official authorisation, the costs of assessing the salt dome’s suitability were high because “the construction of the permanent storage depot was begun parallel to the investigation”.

Although not wanting to confirm the existence of the document, the paper said, the agency did admit that costs had been higher than necessary. Some €1.5 billion (AUD 3 b) has been invested in the site.

Work on the Gorleben mine has been suspended since 2000, when the government decided to wait until 2010 to resume the controversial project.

The appearance of the documents has confirmed the doubts of nuclear energy opponents, who all along have alleged that Gorleben was earmarked as final repository before the safety of the salt was adequately investigated.

In response to the newspaper report, the BfS claims that “the extent of the works is approved by mining law” but it was correct that shafts and buildings were designed with view to later usability as final repository.

"Gorleben is an exploratory mine and no final repository for radioactive waste,” the BfS stated.

“The lie about exploration has been busted,” said the spokesman of the Gorleben resistance group, Bürgerinitiative Lüchow-Dannenberg (BI), Wolfgang Ehmke.

The BI called on Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel, a Social Democrat, to finally drop Gorleben as a dump site. It was the only way to regain trust in a fair process of seeking a waste site, he said.

The allegation that Angela Merkel ignored the warnings about possible drinking water contamination was made by a television current affairs programme, “Kontraste”, also citing a BfS document, this one from 1996.

The programme cited from the document that tectonic movements could press contaminated water upwards to reach drinking water supplies.

"Kontraste" said Merkel did not inform the public at the time.

She had in fact ordered “to continue tipping atomic waste from western reactors into the Morsleben mine in Saxony-Anhalt because it was cheap,” the magazine claimed; Morsleben was the nuclear dump of former communist East Germany, inherited through German reunion.

Morsleben is as dilapidated as the mine Asse II near Wolfenbüttel which is in danger of collapsing and is taking in 12 cubic metres of brine daily. It was meant to be the pilot plant for Gorleben.

Ms Merkel refused to comment to “Kontraste” about the allegation against her.

The Asse scandals will be subject of a regional parliamentary inquiry in Hanover, beginning in June.

The leader of The Greens in the Lower Saxony state house, Stefan Wenzel, told the TV show he intends to have Merkel subpoenaed as a witness.

“She’ll have to face up to her responsibility and come clean. These attempts to cover up will have to end.”

The national coalition government in Berlin, consisting of Christian Democrats (Merkel) and Social Democrats (Gabriel) is deeply split over whether further exploration is to take place in Gorleben or whether more sites are to be looked at.

Social Democrat Gabriel wants a wider search, including Gorleben, while the conservative-held economics ministry wants exploration in Gorleben finished and if found suitable to immediately name it the repository.

The economics ministry has put out a brochure that already declares the salt dome suitable for highly radioactive waste and negates the need to look at any other locations.

Neighbouring Switzerland is conducting a storage search of the kind Gabriel wants for Germany. The Swiss are looking at six sites, the best of which is to be determined in a transparent process. Swiss voters have already turned down one site in their plebiscitary voting system.

Four of the Swiss regions being studied are near the German border and Germans living there are worried. Gabriel says he can understand that, but Germany was being comprehensively involved in the process.

Nuclear energy is deeply unpopular in Germany and thousands of activists often stage protests in the Gorleben area between the cities of Hamburg and Hanover. Gorleben itself is a rural village with about 800 permanent residents.

Power companies are committed to stopping nuclear generation by 2020 but through Merkel’s conservatives are pushing to have that agreement, made with a previous Social Democrat-led government, overturned.