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Nuclear Power Phase-out in 999,990 Years

Ten years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster and 35 years after Chernobyl: Germany is making a fresh attempt to find a repository for high-level radioactive waste

Mar 10, 2021

Silent prayer. On March 11, 2020, large numbers of people gathered at a memorial in Hibiya Park in Tokyo to commemorate the thousands of victims of the 2011 tsunami in eastern Japan that led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Silent prayer. On March 11, 2020, large numbers of people gathered at a memorial in Hibiya Park in Tokyo to commemorate the thousands of victims of the 2011 tsunami in eastern Japan that led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Image Credit: picture alliance / ZUMAPRESS.com / Rodrigo Reyes Marin

It started out as a seaquake that began on March 11, 2011, at 2:46 p.m. local time off the east coast of Japan. But just 23 seconds later, the waves of the quake hit the Fukushima I power plant, 250 kilometers northeast of Tokyo.

The eruptions lasted two minutes, and less than an hour later, 15-meter-high tsunami waves reached the nuclear facility. They flooded the boiling water reactor units 1 to 4, destroying the seawater pumps and several of the running emergency power generators. Because the fuel assemblies could no longer be cooled, the reactors and the spent fuel pools overheated.

There were core melts in units 1 to 3, and finally explosions and fires that damaged the reactor buildings and hurled rubble onto the power plant site. Highly radioactive substances found their way into the air as steam and into the sea as contaminated water.

Fukushima Nuclear Disaster Led to Change of Course in Germany

It was a human-made disaster. The follow-up costs are estimated at several hundred billion euros, and the clean-up work will continue for decades.

In Germany, the Fukushima disaster pushed the federal government under Angela Merkel (CDU) to make a spectacular turnaround. Less than a year earlier, the government had slowed the nuclear phase-out. After Fukushima, it was brought into play again, in an even more extreme form. Merkel herself says that the Fukushima disaster changed her attitude toward nuclear energy as it showed that “even in a high-tech country like Japan, the risks of nuclear energy cannot be safely controlled.”

The last reactor in Germany must now be shut down by December 31, 2022, at the latest. But the nuclear phase-out will not be over then. The issue of nuclear energy in Germany is by no means history. For one thing, factories like the EDF subsidiary Advanced Nuclear Fuels (ANF) in Lingen, Lower Saxony, continue to produce fuel elements for nuclear power plants (AKW) and export them. Also, after decades of using nuclear energy, the issue of what to do with waste remains unanswered.

17 Research Teams from Germany and Switzerland

Political scientist Achim Brunnengräber from the Environmental Policy Research Center (FFU) at Freie Universität Berlin, points out that Germany is not alone in this situation. Brunnengräber heads a subproject in the collaborative research project “Transdisciplinary Research on the Disposal of High-Level Radioactive Waste in Germany” (TRANSENS), in which 17 research teams from Germany and Switzerland are involved. He says, “The issue of final disposal is unsolved worldwide. In fact, there is still no country in which there is a repository for high-level radioactive waste from nuclear power plants.”

Brunnengräber, together with his team colleagues Rosaria Di Nucci, Dörte Themann, and Lucas Schwarz, is currently researching how societies relate to nuclear energy. At present, their research takes the form of “participatory observation.”

Nuclear Power Enforced against the Will of Many Citizens

“It is important to realize that nuclear power in Germany was historically enforced by the state from above and against the will of many citizens,” says Brunnengräber. “Today we know that a site for a nuclear waste repository cannot be found without ambitious public participation.” The issue of where in Germany a repository for high-level radioactive nuclear waste should be built is being debated anew these days. That is because of the Site Selection Act, which was passed in 2013 and reformed in 2017. This Act provides for the search for a possible repository site with extensive public participation. Citizens are to be given an opportunity to express their concerns and also to “help shape” the decision-making process.

This process is just starting. The researchers designed a “specialist conference for sub-areas” for the public. The first event took place in digital form at the beginning of February; parts two and three will follow in April and June. Brunnengräber describes this as a “unique and demanding living lab.” According to the organizers, over 1,600 people took part digitally at the first event.

Brunnengräber notes, however, that the term “co-design” as stated in the law, is “imprecise.” What does participation mean, how far does it go, and what influence does the public have? Ultimately, the German Bundestag (Parliament) will decide on the repository location. There will be no veto and no referendum. At the same time, the members of parliament will not be able to ignore the public participation and the debates it triggered.

Location of Nuclear Repository to Be Determined within Ten Years

A repository location is to be designated by 2031. Storage is to begin as of 2050. Currently, nuclear waste is still being stored in 1,700 dry storage casks specially designed for high-level nuclear waste. By 2080, the total of 16,000 tons of highly radioactive waste from Germany is to be finally deposited in a deep geological formation for at least the next one million years, until the radiation has subsided to such an extent that it no longer poses a health risk to humans. The schedule is just as ambitious as the public participation.

Brunnengräber says that the question of a nuclear waste repository is a “wicked problem” because every attempt at a solution raises new questions: Should the repository be built underground or above ground?

An above-ground storage facility would have the advantage that it would be easier to access if officials changed their minds 10,000 years from now. At the same time, however, it is less protected against accidents or terrorist attacks. What types of containers should used for the nuclear waste? That in turn depends on the host rock of the disposal site: clay, salt, or granite. Should the residents of locations near to a repository receive compensation payments? Or would that be seen as an “immoral offer”?

The crucial question, however, is what risk is inherent in a nuclear repository. The major nuclear disasters in Chernobyl and Fukushima showed that there is no such thing as one hundred percent security when it comes to nuclear energy, says Achim Brunnengräber. “That is the only thing that can be said with certainty.”

Environmental Policy

Environmental Policy Research Centre (FFU)

The Environmental Policy Research Centre at the Otto Suhr Institute of Political Science at Freie Universität Berlin was founded in 1986, a few days before the Chernobyl reactor accident. The research focuses on the governance of environmental and energy policy, the social and economic aspects of sustainable development, and the design and initiation of transformation processes. The FFU provides basic political science research as well as policy advice for national, European, and international institutions.

This text originally appeared in German on February 20, 2021, in the Tagesspiegel newspaper supplement published by Freie Universität.

Further Information

PD Dr. Achim Brunnengräber, Environmental Policy Research Centre (FFU), Otto Suhr Institute of Political Science, Freie Universität Berlin, Email: achim.brunnengraeber@fu-berlin.de