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News Extra - Nuclear waste disposal in Germany

15 April 2015

The German government's amended Nuclear Energy Act, which took effect in July 2011, mandated the immediate shutdown of eight nuclear power stations and significantly curtailed the operating lives of the remaining nine, with all the latter now to be shut by end-2022. This has placed additional focus on the country's plans for the disposal of its nuclear waste.

Interim storage

In German nuclear power plants, interim storage facilities for fuel elements are one of the building blocks of the chain of waste disposal. At each nuclear power plant inspection, about a quarter of the fuel elements are replaced by new ones. The removed fuel elements still give off heat. Because of this, they are first placed into water-filled spent fuel pools filled at the facility, before they can be processed or put into interim storage. After five years, the fuel elements are placed into hermetically sealed, high tensile containers for interim storage. Currently, the group envisages a maximum storage time of 40 years for each container.

Permanent disposal

The use of nuclear energy produces low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste, in research and medicine, as well as in the operation of nuclear power plants; the last also produces high-level waste. In Germany, about 90% of the accumulated nuclear waste is of low- and intermediate-level radioactivity (ca. 270,000 cubic metres) and about 10% is high-level (ca. 24,000 cubic metres). Currently, the radioactive wastes are in interim storage facilities. They have to then be permanently disposed of in deep geological formations.

It is the Federal Government's responsibility to provide suitable, which means safe, final repository sites. Within the Federal Government, responsibility rests with the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, and Nuclear Safety and its subordinate federal agency, the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS). The German Society for Construction and Operation of Waste Repositories serves this function in practice. Ultimately, the authorities in the states where a repository is located are responsible for its approval. The costs of waste disposal are borne by the producer of the waste: that means essentially the energy supply companies, but also the public sector.

Konrad Shaft - Permanent repository for low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste

Konrad Shaft (Schacht Konrad), approved for low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste, is a former iron ore mine in Salzgitter, which is intended to provide for disposal of all low- and intermediate-level wastes accumulated in Germany. Two-thirds of that is to come from the energy companies and one-third from the public sector: for example, wastes from research laboratories and clinics.

The final repository was approved in 2002 by the Lower Saxony Environment Ministry. In April 2007, the Federal Administrative Court upheld the decision. In early 2008, the State Office for Mining, Energy, and Geology of Lower Saxony accepted the main operating plan for construction of the repository in early 2008. Work also began on upgrading the Konrad Shaft. The BfS plans to commission the disposal facility later in this decade.

Gorleben Salt Dome – Potential repository for highly radioactive waste

Germany has chosen rock salt as a final disposal medium for high-level radioactive waste because of its suitability for this role.

The salt dome in Lower Saxony's Gorleben was selected, after a thorough scientific investigation, from over 140 salt domes. The decision was made jointly between the Federal Government and the state of Lower Saxony. The municipalities and the local public also participated. Gorleben could absorb all the highly radioactive waste accumulated in Germany.

According to the current extent of geological exploration, the salt dome is suitable as a final repository for highly radioactive waste. If things go as expected, further exploration and a subsequent approval process will also confirm the suitability of the site, and a final repository could go into operation at the Gorleben salt dome at the end of the next decade.

The current situation

Political and environmental protests against the use of Gorleben site has frozen all but exploratory operations there.

German utilities have filed lawsuits against three German states (Bavaria, Lower Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein) and the federal government, rejecting a 2014 law that banned transporting reprocessed nuclear waste to Gorleben and stipulating it be stored at sites near nuclear reactors instead. The utilities say the transport ban is politically motivated.

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