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Germany: nuclear industry retreats from waste negotiating group

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(July 11, 2003) The German nuclear utilities have announced that they will not participate in roundtable talks on the selection of a waste disposal site. The planned talks were a result of the work of the Working Group on Repository Site Selection (AKend). The nuclear utilities refuse to accept that the German government has put a moratorium on research in he Gorleben salt dome, which they think will be suitable for waste disposal.

(590.5530) WISE Amsterdam - The AKend commission was set up in 1999 by Green environment minister Jürgen Trittin and released its final report in December 2002. In its final report the commission made recommendations how Germany could find a waste disposal site by 2030. The first step in the process was to establish site selection criteria to begin in 2004 with the establishment of a negotiating group (see also WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor 576.5456: "Fierce debate over German waste plans"). This group would consist of representatives from nuclear utilities, political parties, churches, state governments and NGOs. In 2005, five regions in Germany will be assessed for potential sites and in 2010 at least two candidate sites must be selected. Waste disposal is expected to begin in 2030.

Two French MPs, Claude Birraux of the center-right UMP and Christian Bataille of the Socialist Party, have launched a new study on long-term waste management options for France. The Parliamentary Office for Evaluation of Science & Technology Options (Opecst) ordered the study as input to the planned debate on French waste policy to be held in 2006. The study would evaluate the present research in France and other countries. Birraux and Bataille recently finished a report on the future of France's nuclear program, which included a proposal for the construction of a prototype EPR reactor (see WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor 588: "In brief"). Bataille was the author of the 1991 Nuclear Waste Law, which laid down 2006 as date for the French parliament to make final decisions about France's waste policy.

In its annual report 2002, the National Evaluation Commission (CNE) concludes that the 2006 deadline is "extremely tight" for the work of the National Agency for Radioactive Waste (Andra). Andra is constructing an underground research laboratory in the Bure clay formation but has faced a one year long delay in drilling work due to a fatal accident in 2002. According to CNE, research on radionuclide migration from the site will not be able to yield more than "preliminary" results by the 2006 deadline.

CNE remained reserved about the prospects for waste transmutation. Transmutation studies are at a preliminary stage and must still prove its feasibility, if ever possible. According to CNE, it can not substitute geological disposal as some long-lived isotopes are not transmutable and isotope separation work will release also radioactive waste. If transmutation would be technically feasible, the construction of a large number of special reactors would be needed (between 10% and 50% of the entire nuclear capacity). Inventories of transmutable elements could only be stabilized (no increase in net amounts) after several decades of operation. In other words, transmutation is only possible in the framework of new nuclear reactors.
NuclearFuel, 7 July 2003

In the past, a lot of research had been conducted on the suitability of a salt dome at Gorleben for low- and high-level waste disposal. Gorleben was once planned as Germany's national waste center with a reprocessing plant, storage buildings for low- and high-level waste and an underground repository for future waste disposal. The reprocessing plant was cancelled due to fierce resistance but low-level waste and vitrified high-level waste from reprocessing is stored at the site.

An underground research laboratory was constructed in the salt dome and the utilities spent Euros 1.3 billion (US$ 1.5 billion) on research work. There have been significant doubts about the suitability of the Gorleben salt dome for waste disposal. The salt dome lacks a covering clay layer and as a result the salt is in direct contact with ground water. If radioactive waste containers would leak, the radionuclides could easily be spread by the groundwater flow without being hindered by a protective clay layer on top of the dome.

In a June 2000 "consensus agreement" between he German government and the nuclear utilities a three to ten years moratorium on research at Gorleben was laid down although it was not completely rejected as potential site in the far future (see WISE News Communique 532.5186: "Germany: government and utilities reach agreement on phaseout"). The German government decided to start a new site selection process to study possible alternatives, other than Gorleben (see also WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor 555.5322: "Germany: Mega-problem of storing nuclear waste unsolved").

Gorleben is now the issue in the refusal of the German utilities to cooperate in the site selection negotiating group as recommended by AKend. The final report of AKend is said to have caused disagreements between government and industry. In May, the E-On utility informed federal minister Trittin that the utilities would not participate in the site selection discussions. The utilities want that Gorleben should be officially accepted as a candidate site. "The bottom line now is that the utilities aren't prepared to spend any more money on looking for alternative sites until a decision on the suitability of Gorleben is made", said one official.

German states which are ruled by the pro-nuclear Christian-Democrat CDU/CSU will support the position of the nuclear utilities. In February, the CDU won parliament elections in the Lower Saxony state, in which Gorleben is located. Together with the pro-nuclear liberal FDP, they gained both 106 of the 183 parliament seats. Chrstian Ebert, state secretary of the environment ministry has announced that the consideration of Gorleben as disposal site is a prerequisite for cooperation with the site selection negotiating group.

It is unclear yet how the process will continue. The federal government is reluctant to include Gorleben in the negotiating group and would rather look at alternative sites. The nuclear industry and CDU-led states have now announced to boycott the talks as Gorleben is excluded from the options being discussed. According to Lower Saxony CDU leader Christian Wulff, AKend had become "superfluous" as "a working group which is based solely on the expertise of Greenpeace and the Lutheran Church won't have any justification".


Contact: WISE Amsterdam