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Germany: nuclear waste controversies and protests

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Diet Simon

On October 20, the German coalition government of Social Democrats and Conservatives passed a new law on nuclear waste. The law was defended by a leader of the opposition Greens and former environment minister, Jürgen Trittin, outraging activists.

Trittin argued on national television that it is reasonable ("sinnvoll") for operators of nuclear power stations to pay €24 billion into a fund and after that to be cleared of all responsibility for the growing mountain of nuclear waste that will radiate for all eternity. All other costs are to be borne by society.

In the year 2000, Trittin negotiated the first nuclear power phase-out with energy utilities. This time, he's agreed with them on the €24 billion.

A Münster-based activist group wrote: "We're asking ourselves: Is that supposed to be Green nuclear policy for the population or the anti-nuclear movement? Shame on him who thinks that this might be about possible government coalitions to be formed in 2017 [when federal elections are held] or possible employers after Trittin's time as an MP ends." 

A leading anti-nuclear campaigner, Jochen Stay of .ausgestrahlt, sees the law enabling the nuclear operators to buy their way out of their responsibility "while the general public will bear the predictable cost increases in waste storage – this is the exit from the polluter pays principle". A leading regional newspaper, the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung, commented: "Rotten deal at taxpayers' expense".

Stay writes that Trittin touted the deal as if he were a government spokesperson: "Anyone hearing that asks themselves when was the last time the Greens raised a critical voice in nuclear policy decisions. What better can happen to a government than when it makes a highly controversial law and one of the most important opposition politicians talks it up on national television? That'll make the power companies happy, whose share prices rose steeply due to the law. For the stock exchange rates the risk ‒ now shifting from RWE, Eon and others to the public ‒ as much more serious than Jürgen Trittin does."

In the neighbouring state of North-Rhine Westphalia, Greens nuclear policy also looks dismal. Social Democrats and Greens share government there. In the Greens draft election program for next year, there are only simplistic descriptions of nuclear problems. The uranium enrichment plant at Ahaus, the only one in Germany, doesn't even get a mention. Nor is there a plainly expressed rejection of road transportation of waste caskets from Jülich to Ahaus, and the fact that the state government has already approved such transports also doesn't get a mention. The draft lacks specific demands, exit dates, and possible ways to make a nuclear exit complete. All of which leaves the electoral program falling far short of the decisions taken by the last Greens national congress.

Another worry for the anti-nuclear movement is the federal government's plan to stop taxing the power companies' nuclear fuel supplies. That's due to happen at the start of 2017. But the activist group .ausgestrahlt has found out that the companies are already tricking their way out of paying the tax, which would lose the federal coffers nearly €750 million this year. The finance ministry website notes that expected revenue from the fuel element tax this year is €1.1 billion, but only €355 million has been raised so far. The activist group called for protest action in Berlin directed at finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble as he was due to present his tax estimate. Calling for urgent signatures to a petition, .ausgestrahlt wants the minister to keep the fuel tax for at least another year.

Waste storage

On November 2, a vigil was held outside a nuclear research facility in Jülich to protest against trucking Castor waste caskets to Ahaus or for shipment to the USA. The supervisory board was meeting inside at the time.

Depending on the route chosen, the waste would roll on busy highways, through densely populated areas for 180‒190 kms to Ahaus. Activists want the waste kept in Jülich.

A protest resolution to stop the Jülich to Ahaus shipments ‒ the West Castor Resolution ‒ has been signed by 68 groups, with more likely. They include International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and the Greens branch in Jülich. Activists demand the new construction of the safest possible interim storage in Jülich, a definite rejection of casket transports to Ahaus or the USA and the taking of responsibility by the nuclear industry. The resolution in German is posted at

On Wednesday 2 November, the energy committee of the North-Rhine Westphalia state parliament discussed keeping the 152 Castor waste caskets in Jülich, where the waste was produced by an experimental reactor. It was decided to keep them in Jülich at least until the end of 2017, when there will be federal and several state elections. The Red-Green coalition government of North-Rhine Westphalia will be relieved that the controversial transport won't happen in a year when there will be elections in both the state and the nation.

"Under no circumstances" would it be possible to transport the waste by the end of next year, said Rudolf Printz, the technical manager of the Jülich-based nuclear facility disposal enterprise (Entsorgungsgesellschaft für Nuklearanlagen), because many issues remain unresolved. The company is responsible for dismantling the reactor.

The committee debated with experts about the future of the nuclear waste. Experts testified that all options for managing the waste pose risks. Outcome: no solution in sight.

Experts have been wrestling for years with the question of what to do with the Jülich waste. The storage in Jülich has to be emptied because it is regarded as potentially vulnerable to earthquakes. That has caused three other options to be examined. Storage in what is officially just a temporary repository in Ahaus, shipment to the USA, or new construction of a quake-proof repository in Jülich. It became clear in the committee session that all three options pose problems.

Transportation to Ahaus failed just before it was to be implemented, at least for the interim. In July this year, the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (Bundesamt für Strahlenschutz, BfS) licensed the operator of the Jülich repository to store the waste in Ahaus. But according to Printz, tighter new safety regulations for temporary holding of atomic waste rule Ahaus out. Among other things, an additional wall needed to be built there to secure it against terror attack and plane crashes. "Ahaus is obsolete," reactor safety expert Rainer Moormann told the MPs.

Shipping the spent fuel to the USA has been discussed for years. The US energy authority had signalled that nuclear fuel which had been made available to other countries for research could be taken back to the USA to prevent any danger of it being spread further. But the devil is in the detail. How should the transportation be done? How would irradiation of the population be prevented? What would all that cost? Moreover, it is uncertain that the next US president will honour the promise to take the waste back.

A third option, building a new quake-proof repository in Jülich, would take especially long. It would take at least 10 years to have such a facility operable, explained Christian Küppers, expert in nuclear technology and reactor safety with the Freiburg-based NGO Institute for Applied Ecology (Öko-Institut). That makes the plan look unrealistic to many.

Social Democrat Garrelt Duin, North-Rhine Westphalia economics minister who is politically responsible for nuclear supervision, did not present to the committee. Nor was he asked anything.

Opposition Conservatives (CDU) and Liberals (FDP) demanded speedier action by the government. The nuclear supervision of the ministry said they're looking "for the earliest possible solution" because the 152 Castors were only "tolerated" in Jülich for now.

Disposal of high-level waste

As reported in Nuclear Monitor #827 in July 2016, after more than two years of work, a commission considering the storage of Germany's high-level nuclear waste submitted its final report to the government in late June. Repository projects like Gorleben, Morsleben and Asse have failed, and the waste commission was supposed to map out a path forward. But it failed to do so: it evades all decisive issues or is so vaguely worded that the nuclear lobby can already rejoice over its interpretational wriggle room.

The commission hopes that a decision on a site can be reached by 2031 and the repository opened in 2050 ‒ but even that decades-long timetable was described by commission president Michael Mueller as "ambitious", and the commission's report says that the repository might not open until "the next century".

Protests and more protests

About 700 anti-nuclear activists demonstrated on Saturday October 29 in the German town of Lingen, where French-owned Areva produces nuclear fuel for power stations worldwide ( They demanded immediate closure of nuclear power stations in Lingen, Grohnde (in Germany), Tihange, Doel (Belgium), Fessenheim, Cattenom (France) and all others.

Another main demand was immediate closure of the Areva fuel element factory in Lingen and Germany's only uranium enrichment plant in Ahaus, trinationally owned by Germany, Netherlands and Britain.

It was the biggest anti-nuclear protest in Lingen in years and activists said they were very happy with the turnout. Around 100 activist groups called out to participate. Aktionsbündnis Münsterland gegen Atomanlagen, the major mobilisers, said "the mood was good and there was broad media coverage", including by the major national TV news, The Tagesschau.

The activists see the demo as another important step towards exiting nuclear power, still produced by eight of the original 17 power stations. Chancellor Angela Merkel announced on May 30, 2011, that all 17 would be shut down by 2022, in a policy reversal following Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

"We're going to stay on it so that uranium enrichment and fuel element production will also have to be ended," wrote the Münster-based group.

An expert opinion by lawyer Cornelia Ziehm, commissioned by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), argued in July that it is illegal under German law to export fuel elements from Lingen to the fault-prone reactors at Doel, Cattenom and Fessenheim. Ziehm refuted the contrary legal stance of the federal government point by point. The IPPNW and allied civic action groups are demanding that the environment minister, Barbara Hendricks, a Social Democrat, take action at last.

"Deny your approval of export of the fuel elements to the unsafe power station close to the border. The lives and health of us citizens here in Germany and in Belgium and France have to take priority over any entrepreneurial interests," declared Dr. Angelika Claussen of IPPNW in a communication to the minister.

On Sunday November 6, activists against the uranium enrichment plant at Ahaus, near Münster, celebrated the 30th anniversary of their "Sunday stroll" around the plant. Since 1986 the protest walk has taken place on the first Sunday of every month at 2 p.m. "The object remains immediate closure of the plant," the activists said. 

And on Sunday November 12, a very unusual anti-nuclear action will start at 2pm in Aachen, where Belgium, Netherlands and Germany abut. The Alemannia Aachen soccer club will dedicate its home game against the second team of FC Cologne to opposition to the nearby Belgian nuclear power plant at Tihange. Both teams will have "Stop-Tihange" written on their jerseys and profits will flow to anti-nuclear protests. Up to 33,000 people fit into the stadium and all involved are hoping for a full house.