Castor Resistance 2008 - Gorleben Salt Mine For Nuclear Waste Final Disposal Site?

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Castor: A Salt Mine in Gorleben as a Nuclear Waste Final Disposal Site?

The Castor Transport protests that took place in November 2008 were not only about the transport of nuclear waste to the Gorleben temporary disposal site – they were also meant to highlight the still unsolved problem regarding the final disposal of Germany’s, and the world’s, nuclear wastes. In Gorleben itself there are several nuclear facilities: a temporary disposal site for low- and medium-level radioactive waste, a temporary disposal site for high level radioactive waste, an experimental conditioning facility, and a salt mine currently referred to as a “research” final disposal site for radioactive waste – however this site is almost certainly going to become one of the German government’s official final disposal sites.

In 1997 Ernst Albrecht, Prime Minister of Lower Saxony (the province in which Gorleben is located), began planning for the salt mine in Gorleben to become the site of a large “Integrated Nuclear Disposal Centre.” At the heart of this plan was the intent to make the mine the site of the world’s biggest Nuclear Reprocessing Unit – comparable with those currently located in La Hague, France, or Sellafield in the UK. Eventually, after all licenses were acquired, all of the nuclear waste operations in Gorleben were meant to be placed at one location, part of which would be a long-term nuclear disposal site. A “fast breeder” reactor – which would actually produce nuclear power on the Gorleben site with plutonium – was also part of the original plans. Commissioning of these projects was planned for 1985.

In 1979, due to extreme local pressure, Albrecht realized that the core piece of his plan – the nuclear reprocessing unit, was politically impossible. The concept of an “Integrated Nuclear Disposal Centre” collapsed. Despite this, nuclear lobbyists continued to try to realize parts of the plan, but even these efforts failed: the most important pieces of the site – the reprocessing unit and the Fast Breeder, were impossible to build anywhere in Germany because of the upsurge in popular resistance to the dirty technologies. Today, only the final disposal site – the salt mine – remains among the numerous original plans for the Gorleben site. Resistance to this mine becoming a permanent site for the disposal of radioactive waste is still incredibly strong, and research into whether the site would be viable as a safe solution to the final disposal problem is still in its early stages.

Pro-nuclear lobbyists claim that all scientific findings to date have concluded that the Gorleben site would be suitable for final disposal purposes. This is blatantly untrue: even as far back as 1979, geological scientist Klaus Duphorn – whose views are pro-nuclear – concluded that the Gorleben mine is not suitable for the disposal of nuclear waste, due to water seepage into the soluble salt environment of the mine. This water seepage would make the salt mine an unstable repository for radioactive waste – which is intended to stay in this site for hundreds of thousands of years. Need a reference to the study here. Geology professor Gerd Lüttig?, who participated in the disposal site selection process, agreed with these findings and concluded that Gorleben should not belong in the category on best possible final disposal sites.

The meaning of these warnings against the use of the Gorleben mines would be realized in May 1987, when a piece of equipment weighing 1.5 tonnes fell down a mine shaft, killing one miner, and severely injuring six others. The cause of this catastrophe was the water seepage Dr. Duphorn had noted. Water seepage into the mine had begun as early as March 1987. In the years following this, several other problems relating to the geological situation of the mine, and the technical problems associated with storing highly radioactive waste there, were uncovered.

Thus far, the German government has spent at least 1.5 billion Euro in the development of the Gorleben final disposal site. In 1997, the federal government estimated it would need 4.58 billion EUR to finish the preparatory construction of the mine, to make it suitable for final disposal. In contrast even to this conservative figure, a representative of the private company contracted to build the mine quoted, in November 2008, a figure of 3.4 billion EUR to finish preparing the site. Given these vastly differing figures, we must assume that that quoted by the company building the site is significantly below what the actual cost of this project will be.

In Germany, policy states that nuclear companies must pay for most of the costs incurred in the final disposal of the radioactive waste they produce. However, in the cases of two other final disposal sites in the country – Morsleben and ASSE – private nuclear companies have dumped tens of thousands of cubic metres of radioactive waste, and paid nearly nothing for it. In another final disposal site, Konrad, which unlike Gorleben has already been approved for use by the German government, nuclear companies must cover 64.4% of the costs. For Gorleben, companies are supposed to be responsible for 96.5% of the expenses incurred in construction and use of the site.

Because of these expenses, nuclear companies are eager to simply approve the Gorleben site as a final disposal site, and wish to avoid the time and expense necessary if the site is rejected as suitable for this purpose. This is an incredibly dangerous point of view that puts the lives at grave risk – however the industry continues to lobby for the use of the Gorleben site despite the concerted public calls for more research into the safety of the site for long-term storage. The nuclear industry wants to be able to begin placing waste in the site by 2030 – then for it to be forgotten about forever.

DBE, the company that is contracted to run the Gorleben “research” site, is currently running three of the four German final disposal sites: Morsleben, Schacht Konrad, and Gorleben. DBE is 75% owned by the nuclear company GNS, which is itself comprised of four giant nuclear companies with large shares in German nuclear plants: RWE (28%), Vattenfall (5.5%), SNE (18.5%, also known as the name of its daughter company, EnBW). The DBE works under the order of the Federal Office for Radiation Protection, by state mandate.

To resist against the Castor transport is also to resist against the idea of any “final disposal” plans (as well as the existence of the nuclear power plants that make disposal necessary) related to radioactive waste, as final disposal plans to date have all included leaving waste in the ground and forgetting about it. Nuclear companies lobby against the employment of anyone who will be responsible for ensuring that the waste is kept safe into the future. This social movement has successfully prevented the construction of many nuclear facilities, and has slowed down the unwanted construction of many more. Today, Germany has no applications from nuclear companies to build any new nuclear power plants, due to the negative social atmosphere that exists in the country regarding nuclear power generation there. Let’s hope this continues into the future.

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