Nuclear Waste: Endless Repository Search? No nuclear waste site by 2031

What to do with the waste? This question is particularly difficult to answer when it comes to nuclear power.

Nuclear Waste: Endless Repository Search? No nuclear waste site by 2031

What to do with the waste? This question is particularly difficult to answer when it comes to nuclear power. By 2031 it should actually be clarified where in Germany high-level radioactive waste is to be stored in the long term. But nothing will come of it, as the Federal Environment Ministry confirmed on Thursday.

The process for finding a location cannot be completed by 2031 "taking into account the high requirements for selecting the location with the best possible security," the ministry said at the request of the German Press Agency. This target is actually in the site selection law created specifically for the process.

At the time, it was important to the legislature that the process be started quickly, said a spokesman for the ministry. "This was the reason why the year 2031 was not deleted when the site selection law was amended in 2017." In 2016, the Repository Commission estimated a wide range of time requirements for the site selection process. "It would therefore have been surprising if the current schedule could have confirmed 2031."

Delays expected for a long time

It had already become apparent in advance that the ambitious schedule would wobble. The "Ostsee-Zeitung" reported on delays a few days ago, citing the Federal Office for the Safety of Nuclear Waste Management (BASE). Now followed the confirmation of the supreme nuclear supervisory authority.

Assuming that the three remaining nuclear power plants cease operations by next spring at the latest, 1,900 containers with 27,000 cubic meters of highly radioactive waste from the nuclear power era will remain. This should disappear deep underground in a location that offers the best possible security for a million years. The search for such a place harbors potential for conflict. This was also shown recently by the excitement about Switzerland's decision to build a nuclear waste repository not far from the German border.

It should be transparent and fair

In the 1970s, the political decision-makers had determined the Gorleben mine in Lower Saxony as the repository site without the participation of the population - and thus triggered large-scale protests. The search, which was launched a few years ago, should not only take into account geoscientific data, but also be transparent and fair - a mammoth task for which the Federal Agency for EndRepository (BGE) has been responsible since 2017.

According to the Ministry of the Environment, the BGE has now presented a document in which "for the first time, time corridors for all phases of the site selection process are presented, taking into account deadline risks and potential for acceleration". The ministry of Steffi Lemke (Greens) bases its confirmation of the date, which can no longer be kept, on this paper.

The BGE has already held many discussions on the participation of the population. She narrowed down the number of eligible areas to 90, taking into account exclusion criteria. 54 percent of Germany's area is considered geologically suitable to house the future nuclear waste repository. The next step will be a significant reduction to around ten site regions by means of safety investigations.

result in a few years

It could also be more or less, said BGE spokeswoman Monika Hotopp on Thursday. A result can only be expected in "a few years". The schedule was very ambitious from the start. From the very first steps, you could see that it just took longer. "Safety is simply the top priority." Sometimes the BGE has to develop scientific methods first.

According to information from the Ministry of the Environment, Germany is not alone without a repository. More than 60 years after the start of nuclear power, there is still no repository for highly radioactive waste in operation anywhere in the world.

To date, highly radioactive waste has been stored at 16 interim storage sites spread across Germany. Actually, the repository should go into operation from 2050. Since this goal is no longer likely to be met, the waste could remain in the interim storage facilities for longer.

According to a BASE spokeswoman, the approval for the Gorleben interim storage facility will expire first. There it is valid until the end of 2034. For a large part of the interim storage facilities, the permits then expired in the 2040s. "If the operators of the interim storage facility recognize that an extension of the permit is necessary, new permits must be applied for at BASE in good time before it expires." Safety questions arising from prolonged storage would also have to be fully answered.

She emphasized that the interim storage facilities were not a permanent solution. "Only a safe repository in deep geological layers offers the necessary long-term protection against the highly radioactive waste." Until such a thing is in place, the interim storage facilities should continue to be operated - "at the current scientifically justified safety level".

After a long time in Germany, a new interim storage facility is to be built in Lubmin in western Pomerania - in the vicinity of an existing interim storage facility - due to increased safety standards. With a view to the expected longer period of interim storage, critics are calling for a so-called hot cell for the new building, in which any defective Castor containers can be opened with appropriate protection. This is not planned so far.

The Federal Ministry for the Environment stated that it would now hold talks with the BGE and the BASE about the further process and the conclusions from the outdated schedule. One way or another - even after the expected final phase-out of nuclear power in the coming year, Germany still has a long aftermath ahead of it.