An inventory of 126,000 drums of low- and medium level radioactive waste, placed in the former Asse salt mine in Lower Saxony between 1967 and 1978, will be brought to the surface and reconditioned if necessary. No final decision has been made about where to move the waste.
WISE Amsterdam - Wolfram Koenig, president of the German Federal Radiation Protection Agency, BFS, and Norbert Roettgen, since last fall Germany’s federal nuclear regulator and in charge of the Federal Ministry of Environment & Nuclear Safety, BMU, made statements mid January indicating they both agreed that retrieving the waste was the best option. During 2009, BFS internally evaluated several options for decommissioning and closing the Asse repository. The office also considered moving the waste to 1,000 meters underground at Asse or filling the mine with water and sealing it, but decided that removing it was the safest option for the long term. Koenig said the operation would be a "great scientific and technical challenge," with the BfS planning to present soon a concept on how best to proceed.
The German section of Friends of the Earth, BUND, said it was unclear where the waste will go once extracted from Asse. But press reports said that it would be stored in an old iron ore mine called Konrad Shaft near Salzgitter, which would then become Germany's first permanent storage site for nuclear waste.
Asse was commissioned in the 1960s by federal and state government agencies, without a formal nuclear licensing process, on behalf of waste producers. According to some German waste management officials, unless the federal government took control of the project, some utilities would not have agreed to commit themselves to invest in Germany’s initial nuclear power plants.
Extracting the waste is expected to be a laborious, hazardous and expensive operation. According to BFS officials, retrieving all the waste would take about a decade and cost at least 2 billion Euro (US$ 2.9 billion), while press reports mention it could cost as much as four billion Euro (US$ 5.8 billion). BFS is also preparing "emergency measures" in case of an enormous increase of flooding, and if it is determined that some of the containers are dangerously corroded, then removing them will be reconsidered.
It is uncertain who will ultimately pay for retrieving, repackaging, and disposing of the Asse waste. Before the last federal coalition government was voted out of power in September, then BMU-minister Sigmar Gabriel asserted that waste producers, including power reactor owners, should pay for the decommissioning of the site. But reactor owners of course disagreed, saying that, since the Asse project was led by the federal government’s research ministry, the federal government should pay for it. Last week, Germany’s research minister, Annette Schavan, said in interviews that the Asse mine was “more intensively used” by industry than would have been justified had Asse been solely a research project.
The Asse mine in central Germany, used to store waste from 1967 to 1978 between 500 and 700 meters underground, has been known for some time to be leaking and in danger of partial collapse. At first the barrels were stacked in an orderly manner, but in the 1970s they were simply dumped in and covered with the salt grit, with the result that many are now corroded and dented.
Although Asse is a disposal site for low- and intermediate level waste, that does not automatically mean there are no highly radioactive substances. Last August it was published that in the Asse pit, around 28 kg of plutonium, more than three times as much as previously assumed, is evidently being stored.
Sources: Parliamentary questions, 24 November 2009, European Parliament / AFP, 15 January 2010 / Nucleonics Week, 21 January 2010
Exactly 200 issues ago, in issue 503 of this magazine (which was called the WISE News Communique by then), we published the following In Brief.
Asse storage is leaking. From 1967 to 1977, low and intermediate radioactive waste was stored in the former salt mine in Asse, Lower Saxony, Germany. There it is supposed to be stored in dry salt. Now water is seeping through to the waste drums. The environmental ministry of Lower Saxony confirmed the leakage on November 6.
At present about 10 cubic meters of water is pumped away daily. The drums are in danger of rusting. Experts are trying to find solutions to this problem. Since 1995 salt from another Kali-mine close to Hannover has been added to the Asse mine to cover the waste. The leakage of the soapy water (alkaline solution) had first been discovered in 1991, and from 1993 on, it slowly increased. But the environment ministry isn't yet considering 'evacuating' the 127,000 drums to another site. This would only be considered in a "worst case" scenario. Instead, it should be tried to make Asse water-proof again.
From WISE News Communique 503; 4 December 1998