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Where to Go with Radioactive Waste?

Political scientists study how different countries handle the search for final waste repositories

Jul 02, 2014

Eine strahlende Zukunft? Bis 2015 müssen europäische Länder eine Lösung für die Endlagerung radioaktiver Abfälle vorlegen.
A bright future? By 2015 the countries in the European Union have to submit proposals for long-term storage of radioactive waste. Image Credit:

In 1955, physician and Nobel laureate Werner Karl Heisenberg proposed that nuclear waste simply be packed up and sunk in the ocean far off the coast. His colleague Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, later a critic of nuclear power, was still certain in 1969 that the newly discovered energy source was a clean one, and disposal would be no problem.

At the time, he said, “I have been told that all of the nuclear waste that will be present in Germany in the year 2000 will fit inside a cubic container 20 meters on a side. If it is well sealed and placed in a mine, we can hope that the problem has been solved.”

Today, some 45 years later, there is already about 20,000 cubic meters of highly radioactive waste in storage in Germany alone. On top of that, there is also highly active waste from the reprocessing plants in France and England.

In order to find ways to deal with these residual substances, scientists from the Environmental Policy Research Centre at the Otto Suhr Institute of Political Science at Freie Universität are analyzing societies’ search for a final storage site for these kinds of waste. Their research is part of a subproject in the ENTRIA research platform being supported by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), which has an interdisciplinary makeup and has been tasked with developing bases for assessing different disposal options by 2017.

Waste Must Be Stored Securely for a Million Years

“Our approach to this is a national and international analysis of the search for final storage,” says political scientist Achim Brunnengräber, who has completed a professorial thesis and is heading the subproject together with Professor Miranda Schreurs. “We compare the existing approaches and concepts in different countries and study which players are involved in what ways, what conflicts arise, which political tools are used, and how different institutions and players work together from the European level to the national and local ones,” he explains.

In political science, final storage of nuclear waste is often called a “wicked problem” – a thorny issue that is difficult to solve and touches on a wide variety of interests, so there is a tendency to put off dealing with it.

According to the requirements laid out by the German federal environment ministry, the highly radioactive waste must be stored securely for one million years, with no radioactive or toxic contamination reaching the environment in the meantime. By the time the last German nuclear power plants are decommissioned, in 2022, the German Federal Office for Radiation Protection estimates that there will be nearly 24,000 cubic meters of highly radioactive waste. If slightly to moderately radioactive waste is added, the total should come to about 297,500 cubic meters of waste by 2050 – that’s about as much as would fill 750 swimming pools.

Since the Asse II deep geological repository made headlines in Germany back in 2008 because salty water was able to enter the unstable mine structure, and since legitimate doubts have also been raised for several years regarding how suitable the Gorleben salt dome site is for final storage of radioactive waste, the question of where to put highly active waste in particular remains just as unclear today as it was when atomic energy first came into use.

“To study the societal process of searching for a final repository, we use the ‘multi-level governance’ approach,” Brunnengräber says. What that means is an approach that includes all of the players and levels of action in the analysis. After all, the search for a solution has to be a joint one that is open to a wide range of results and involves all of the societal groups affected in a critical process. Brunnengräber explains, “This process needs active support and monitoring, both politically and socially as well as within the scientific community.” The ENTRIA interdisciplinary research platform serves this function, he says, adding, “Without geological knowledge and engineering expertise, it is impossible to handle radioactive waste successfully, just as it is without social acceptance and corresponding political decision-making processes.”

One of those political stipulations is the EU’s Council Directive 2011/70/Euratom, which obligates all Member States that use nuclear energy to present a solution to the issue of final storage by 2015. The project at the Environmental Policy Research Centre at Freie Universität aims to support the search for options with an analysis from the standpoints of political and social science.

And yet, very few countries have strategies in place for dealing with radioactive waste in the long term. People in the U.S., the UK, Japan, and Lithuania have so far been unable to agree on a possible location to build a final repository. In France, the atomic waste authorities are testing the local clay and sedimentary rock strata at an underground lab in the Lorraine region to see whether the area is suitable for a final repository. Spain and the Netherlands, by contrast, have dedicated their efforts to aboveground intermediate storage for at least 100 years in order to draw on technical progress and other countries’ experiences when deciding on a final repository – an approach, Brunnengräber says, “that merely postpones the problem, pushing the solution off onto future generations.”

Scandinavia is the only place where there are already finished concepts for deep geological repositories: In Sweden, a granite and gneiss formation in a sparsely populated area near an existing nuclear power plant is slated for use as a future final repository, and Finland is taking a similar approach. Plans call for the highly radioactive substances to be enclosed in copper containers. But this form of storage has a catch. “It is assumed that water will enter the underground tunnels – and it is unclear whether the copper containers will truly stand up to the high radioactivity, the heat generated by the waste, and the water for millennia.”

For Germany, a final storage commission comprising representatives of the political, research, and business sectors and other societal groups was appointed in late May. The commission is tasked with preparing the final storage search process by the end of 2015 – and doing so in a manner that is accepted across all of society. Environmental associations initially refused to participate, but are now also represented on the commission. Brunnengräber is sure of one thing: “The experience of the past few decades has shown that the only way the search for a final repository can be successful is if it has broad-based public support.”

Further Information

  • Prof. Dr. Miranda Schreurs, Director, Environmental Policy Research Centre (FFU), Freie Universität Berlin, Email: