You are here

Theory and practice: the example of Gorleben

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
WISE Amsterdam

In 1977 the Gorleben saltdome was assigned as the location for the disposal of German high-level radioactive waste. The mine, planned to be used as a disposal site for high-level radioactive waste in a saltdome at Gorleben, is about half finished. Until now, 1.3 billion Euro is spent. It will take a few decades more before the first waste-container can be stored, unless the whole project is skipped due to ungoing scientific and popular opposition.

At 840 meters below surface there is a large space with nets under the ceiling to prevent pieces of salt from falling down. There are two shafts 400 meters from eachother. Between both shafts a system of horizontal galleries (7,5 meter wide and 5 meter high) is constructed to allow natural air circulation. It is 37 degrees Celcius and there are measuring apparatus in side-walls, floor and ceiling to measure the convergence: the movement of salt. In 3,5 years (2002-2005) the convergence was 60 centimeters. Therefore employees have to scrape the galleries to keep them at the necessary height.

In 2005 Joachim Kutowski (head of the Department Geology Gorleben of the DBE -the German Company for Contruction and Operation of Final Waste Disposal) pointed out that saltdomes are not very suitable for retrievable storage of radioactive waste, because in time the galleries will silt up. Furthermore the radioactive waste produces heat and the containers can sink away in warmer salt layers and it would then not be easy to locate them if necessary for retrieval. The highest point of the saltdome is 250 meters below the surface level.

During construction the DBE located several carnallite-layers (hydrated potassium-magnesium-chloride) which had to be sidestepped. Therefor the actual disposal will, according to Kutowski, be at a different location at the dome than originally foreseen. Because the high level waste produces heat, the casks have to be stored 50 meters from each other. Given the amount of waste, twice as much space is needed as available now. From the galleries and shafts holes have to be digged out to store the waste in.

One of the reasons for the opposition to believe the saltdome is not suitable is that it is not even meeting its own standards: there should be a layer of impermeable clay over the saltdome, but it is missing for a few square kilometers. So the question is why Gorleben was chosen in the first place? Kutowski states that the decision to see Gorleben as the prime location might not have been taken on just geological grounds but also for political reasons: unemployment, located near the East-German border (but after the reunification in 1990 is was suddenly located in the heart of Germany) Kutowski said in 2005: “So there was no pile of scientific evidence in favor of Gorleben. It was about finding a suitable location, not the best available one”.

This was again confirmed in April this year when it was revealed that in de mid 1980s government geologists were bullied by top government officials to change their findings regarding the suitability of the Gorleben location.

This has been revealed by Professor Helmut Röthemeyer, pensioned former department head of the Federal Physics Technology Agency (PTB), which examined the salt deposit at Gorleben in the mid-80s. The PTB commissioned deep drilling of the salt dome and because of what they revealed it advised against using the salt as a final nuclear repository. The testdrillings hadn’t delivered the hoped-for findings. It was discovered that in the Ice Age a groove was made by a runnel (a small stream) through the stone covering the salt making the stone “unable to hold back contaminations from the biosphere over time”.

When a meeting was called with another federal agency to discuss the findings and the recommendation to explore other sites, Röthemeyer explaines, unexpectedly representatives of the federal chancellor’s [prime minister’s] office, the research and technology ministry and the interior ministry also attended. (There was no environment ministry until after the Chernobyl explosion in Ukraine.) The ministry officials demanded that the PTB change its findings. "There was nothing in writing,” Röthemeyer told the newspaper, “there was no written order, but we clearly had to take that conversation as an order.”

The group fighting nuclear waste dumping at Gorleben says they’ve twice demanded the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS), which succeeded the PTB, to hand them records of the position taken by the PTB or to at least see them. “The irrelevant criteria for the 1977choice of location paired with this wrong course setting in the mid-80s led nuclear waste disposal into the next dead end,” says the group’s media spokesman, Wolfgang Ehmke on April 19, 2009.

In the 2000 Phase-out law, a 10-year moratorium was declared to give the then SPD/Green coalition time to renew the search for another site. Very little happened afterwards.

In September last year a damning report about nuclear waste leaking from the Asse II storage facility in Lower Saxony became known. The report said nearly 130,000 barrels of low- to medium-grade nuclear waste had been mishandled and warned that groundwater leaking from the mine was radioactive. Environment minister Gabriel said Asse-II was "the most problematic nuclear facility in Europe" -- in part because the mine stood in danger of collapse. The Asse scandal (Asse II is geologically similar to Gorleben) could derail the plans of the CDU/CSU to start drilling again at Gorleben as soon as possible in order to show the population that progress was being made on the issue of storage and to postpone the planned phaseout of nuclear power.


Sources: Press release, BI Luchow-Dannenberg, 19 April 2009 / Der Spiegel online, 4 September 2008 / Nuclear Monitor 625, 8 April 2005