Exploration to resume at German repository site

22 March 2010

German federal environment minister Norbert Röttgen has lifted a 10-year moratorium on exploratory work at the Gorleben salt dome, a potential repository for Germany's radioactive waste.

Gorleben site (Image: BfS)
The Gorleben site (Image: BfS)
In a statement released on 15 March, Röttgen announced that the exploration of the salt dome would resume under a stepwise process including a preliminary safety analysis, updated final repository concept and a peer review by international experts.
Exploration work on the Gorleben rock salt formation as a potential radioactive waste repository site began in 1977. The federal government gave its approval for underground exploration at the site in 1983, and excavation work began with the sinking of the first of two shafts in 1986. Work continued until June 2000 when, alongside plans for the eventual phaseout of nuclear power in Germany, a three- to ten-year moratorium was imposed on the Gorleben exploration work.
Over the intervening decade the political landscape in Germany has changed, with the replacement of the Socialist-Green coalition government in power at the time of the moratorium by the current, more pro-nuclear, right-of-centre coalition government led by Angela Merkel.
Röttgen said that the moratorium had resulted in "more than 10 years of stagnation", shifting the burden of finding a solution for the disposal of the country's radioactive waste onto the next generation. The current coalition, he said, wished to redress this.
The federal environment ministry (BMU) has drawn up a roadmap for the preparatory phase of the exploration restart. Before underground exploration can resume, an agreement on the security arrangements for a repository for heat-generating waste must be reached with the provinces involved. This is expected to be achieved by October 2010. A preliminary safety analysis for the site and an updated repository concept are to be submitted by the end of 2012 and subjected to an international peer review, expected to be completed in the first half of 2013. The next step, exploration and production of planning documents for a repository, is expected to be completed within seven years, according to the German Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS), which currently is responsible for the site.
The exploratory workings at Gorleben have been under care-and-maintenance since October 2000, keeping the mine in a safe state and preserving the possibility for work to resume.
Germany operated a waste disposal facility in former salt mine workings at Asse through the 1960s and 1970s, but the complex is in an unstable region of the salt. Earlier this year, the BfS announced that some 126,000 barrels of the waste, mostly low-level radioactive waste such as contaminated clothes, paper and equipment, are to be removed from the site for interim storage at the surface in what it described as a major scientific and technological challenge.
Currently, German radioactive waste is placed in interim storage, with spent fuel mostly stored at reactor sites. Vitrified high-level wastes arising from overseas reprocessing of German spent fuel under contracts signed up to 1989 is stored in surface facilities at Gorleben and Ahaus. Work began in 2007 on the conversion of a former iron ore mine at Konrad in Lower Saxony mine into a repository for low- and intermediate-level waste which is planned to be in operation by the end of 2013.

Researched and written

by World Nuclear News