Germany. Election heats up nuclear debate.

Abstract

1612 BERLIN—A nearly 3-decade-old telex message regarding the scientific evaluation of a disposal site for highly radioactive nuclear waste in Germany has become a prominent issue in the campaign leading up to Sunday’s national elections. The telex has sparked charges that scientists in the 1980s bowed to political pressure, and it has heated up the long-simmering debate about the future of nuclear power in Germany. For both political and scientific reasons, nuclear waste experts say, Germany needs to redo its hunt for a high-level waste repository. “We have to start a new search to determine whether there is a better alternative or not,” says Karl-Heinz Lux of the Clausthal University of Technology in Germany. A steady stream of revelations about problems at one of the country’s repositories for lower-level waste, which had been managed by a prominent research center, has added potency to the issue. The debate over storage of high-level wastes echoes the decades-long controversy in the United States over the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal site, which was defunded by the Obama Administration earlier this year (Science, 20 March, p. 1557). There, too, politics drove the selection of a single, sparsely populated site as a potential repository. In both cases, the perception that politics, not science, drove the site choice has made the f ight for public acceptance much harder, says Gerhard Jentzsch, a geologist at Friedrich Schiller University of Jena in Germany. Nuclear power faces widespread skepticism among Germans, in part fueled by memories of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. In 2002, the country’s parliament passed a law mandating the shutdown of the country’s existing nuclear plants by 2022. Current Chancellor Angela Merkel has so far accepted that policy and officially all five of Germany’s main parties say they will abide by the phase-out, but nuclear energy opponents fear that after the 27 September election, Merkel’s Christian Democrats and their preferred coalition partner, the Free Democrats, will extend or scrap the deadline. Earlier this month, tens of thousands of protesters marched through the streets of Berlin to demonstrate support for the moratorium. Finding a place to safely dispose of the country’s nuclear waste has been the hottest topic. In 1977, the government proposed a large salt dome near the border with what was then East Germany. Located by a village called Gorleben, the site has been controversial from the start, attracting protests every year when waste is transported to a temporary storage facility at the site. Among the concerns are that the clay layers covering the dome are too thin in some spots to adequately protect the salt deposits from leaching water. And geologists disagree on whether a salt deposit is the country’s best option for the most radioactive nuclear waste. “High-level nuclear waste produces heat, which can draw water out of the salt,” says Jentzsch, who suggests clay deposits may be a better alternative. Election-driven politics have now led to new questions about Gorleben. Earlier this month, Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel confirmed the discovery of a telex message sent in 1983 by government officials to scientists evaluating the site as a potential repository. The message seems to substantiate media charges from earlier this year that scientists were pressured by government officials to alter their report. In a draft report, the researchers had said the site was adequate but should be compared with other possible sites. The final report deleted the recommendation for a comparison. Gabriel, a member of the center-left Social Democrats, called the telegram a full-blown scandal. An aide to Merkel initially dismissed its importance, but the chancellor herself said a few days later that she had asked for an investigation into the matter. Off icially, Merkel and her party stand by their position that Gorleben is an appropriate site. Although it has been colored by election politics, Lux says, the public debate about Gorleben is necessary. “There is no way around the fact that we have to find some final storage site,” he says. Whether politicians decide to continue with the phase-out or not, “the waste is there and has to be dealt with.” The only way to win public support is to start a new search process that would investigate possible alternatives, he says: “Without a comparison, we can’t go further with Gorleben.” Gorleben’s critics have been strengthened by revelations about another salt-based nuclear waste dump nearby. Called Asse II, it has been used since the 1960s to dispose of waste from several of Germany’s research institutes. Government authorities took over the site in January after the research center that had been administering it, the Helmholtz Center Munich, failed to inform authorities that brine had been leaching from the complex. Since then, investigators have found evidence that more and higher-level waste than allowed was deposited at the site. Adding a grisly element to the furor, news surfaced last week that the partial cremated remains of two workers killed in a 1975 accident at a nuclear power plant might also have been buried there. Environment Minister Gabriel has estimated that the cleanup and closing of the site could cost as much as €4 billion. “Asse is a catastrophe, both politically and scientifically,” Lux says. “It will take years to rebuild the trust that has been lost in the process.” –GRETCHEN VOGEL Election Heats Up Nuclear Debate GERMANY Nuclear Trojan horse? Protesters at a rally in Berlin claimed that Angela Merkel’s party would undo the country’s phase-out of nuclear power.

DOI: 10.1126/science.325_1612

Cite this paper

@article{Vogel2009GermanyEH, title={Germany. Election heats up nuclear debate.}, author={Gretchen Vogel}, journal={Science}, year={2009}, volume={325 5948}, pages={1612} }