Germany revises waste disposal programme

4 November 2015

Judith Perera gives an overview of Germany’s new radioactive waste disposal plans, which were submitted to the European Commission in August.

The German government on 12 August adopted a draft national radioactive waste disposal programme proposed by the environment ministry, following a strategic environmental assessment and public consultation. The ministry said the programme offers a "comprehensive approach to responsible and safe disposal of all radioactive waste." Under the European Union's 2011 Waste Directive, Germany was required to submit such a plan to the European Commission by 23 August.

The new plan proposes two locations for the final disposal of radioactive waste - the former iron ore mine Konrad in Salzgitter for low-level and intermediate-level waste (LLW and ILW) and another, as yet undetermined site, for high-level waste (HLW). In a change to previous plans, the programme does not suggest an extension to the Konrad repository, which means the second location will need to accommodate all radioactive waste produced by 2022, when Germany's last nuclear plant is scheduled to close under the nuclear phase-out policy.

Next year, a parliamentary commission will present its findings on the options, but no location for the second site will be chosen until 2031, and it will take until 2050 to prepare it for waste storage. The process of moving the waste there will take several more decades. Germanenvironmentalists say they are sceptical about both those deadlines. Olaf Bandt, head of the environmental organisation BUND told Deutsche Welle: "It's a complex business. Not only that, but we want local populations to be included in the process."

Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks argued that, compared with other countries, the government's plans for dealing with nuclear waste were well-advanced. "There is no safe permanent disposal site in existence anywhere in the world," she told reporters. Moreover, Germany has a comparative advantage: since it has a fixed deadline for shutting down its last reactors, authorities can accurately estimate how much waste they will be dealing with.

Searching for a site

The new programme shows that Germany is still at the start of its search for a site. For the past year, a parliamentary commission has been investigating possible storage sites for HLW, working on the principle that every German state is open to consideration except the city states of Berlin, Hamburg, and Bremen. However, Bavaria, which hosts three of the eight nuclear units still in operation, has apparently withdrawn from consideration. "According to the findings of the Bavarian state office for the environment about the underground geological substrate, the locations in Bavaria are not suitable for permanent disposal," the Bavarian Environment Ministry told Der Spiegel magazine. Meanwhile, geologists have already ruled out large areas as unsafe for environmental and seismic reasons. They are considering deep, dry mines or layers of solid rock, mostly in northern Germany.

Until 1994 utilities were obliged to reprocess spent fuel to recover the usable portion and recycle it. From 1994 to 1998 reprocessing and direct disposal were equally acceptable to the federal government. However, the policy of the coalition government from 1998 to 2009 was for direct geological disposal of used fuel with no reprocessing after mid 2005 (although firm contracts totalling $7.3bn were in place with BNFL and Areva). Transport of used fuel to reprocessing plants abroad would no longer be permitted and interim storage facilities would be built at reactor sites.

A plan for reprocessing wastes

In June, a proposal for storing waste generated from reprocessing German used nuclear fuel in France and the UK was announced by the environment minister. German utilities are obliged to take back the wastes resulting from the reprocessing of their used nuclear fuel at Areva's La Hague plant in France and at Sellafield in the UK. The first container of waste from France is scheduled to be shipped in 2017, with the other four following between 2018 and 2020. The timetable for shipments of waste from the UK has not yet been determined.

Under the plan, 26 waste storage containers will be held at four interim storage sites across the country. The ministry proposes that five containers are kept at an on-site interim facility at the Philippsburg nuclear plant, storing vitrified ILW from reprocessing at La Hague. A total of 21 containers are to be held at interim facilities at the Biblis, Brokdorf and Isar nuclear plants, storing vitrified HLW from reprocessing at Sellafield.
Hendricks said these sites had been selected as they are "best placed from technical, legal and procedural aspects as well as from a political perspective."

She added, "It is now up to the utilities to make decisions concerning the submission of specific locations." The environment ministry noted that the approval process for the collection, transportation and storage of such waste is not covered by the state but by the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS).

German utilities EnBW, E.On, RWE and Vattenfall welcomed the ministry's proposal, which they said they would examine in detail. E.On said in a statement: "The four companies expressly declare their readiness to implement common solutions that can be legally approved, are economical and acceptable under corporate law and are legally secure."

Repositories old and new

In 2013 the environment ministry announced that the government and Germany's 24 states had finally reached agreement on drafting a repository law, and that the power utilities should spend €2bn ($2.2bn) to develop a new repository.

BfS is responsible for the construction and operation of repositories and this responsibility comprises the Asse II mine, the Morsleben repository, the Konrad repository and the Gorleben mine. Waste has already been stored in Morsleben and Asse, but exploratory works on the Gorleben site stopped in July 2013 when the Site Selection Law became effective. Only Konrad is currently being converted to a repository and is the only repository so far licensed under nuclear law.

The former Konrad iron ore mine in Salzgitter had been investigated as a possible repository since 1975. In 1982, the application for the initiation of a plan-approval procedure was filed and in 2002, the Lower Saxon Environment Ministry granted a licence. In May 2007, work started to convert the Konrad mine to a repository. The plan- approval decision for Konrad provides for an emplacement volume of maximum 303,000 cubic metres of LLW and ILW.

The Asse II potash and salt mine near Wolfenbu¨ttel was opened around 100 years ago. Between 1965 and 1995, Helmholtz Zentrum Mu¨nchen used the mine on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Research to test the handling and storage of radioactive waste in a repository. Between 1967 and 1978, 46,950 cubic metres of radioactive waste in 125,787 drums were stored there. In 2008, the ministries agreed to treat Asse as a repository, but saline solutions entered the mine causing it to become unstable and in 2009, BfS assumed responsibility for retrieving the waste and decommissioning the mine.

The potash and salt mine in Morsleben became a repository for low and intermediate-level wastes from nuclear power plants in 1971. Located in former East Germany, it was licensed in 1981, re-licensed post reunification, and was closed in 1998. BfS has now also applied for its decommissioning. It is in poor condition and is being stabilised with concrete at a cost reported to be €2.2bn.

From 1979 to 2000 the Gorleben salt dome was examined for its suitability to host a HLW repository but exploration work ceased from 2000 to 2010. It was again interrupted in November 2012 and with the coming into effect of the Repository Site Selection Act in 2013 exploration was terminated. However, the mine will be kept open as long as the Gorleben site has not been ruled out in the repository site selection procedure.

A waste inventory

The federal environment ministry has compiled an inventory of all the types of radioactive waste that need disposal, including HLW such as used nuclear fuel and wastes from the reprocessing of German used fuel abroad, as well as LLW and ILW of all kinds. The ministry also produced a forecast of all the radioactive waste that will be generated in Germany by 2080. This includes some 10,500t of used fuel from reactor operation, which could be stored in about 1100 containers.

A further 300 containers of HLW and ILW are expected from the reprocessing of used fuel, as well as 500 containers of used fuel from research and demonstration reactors.

Some 600,000 cubic metres of LLW and ILW will also require disposal, including waste from the operation and decommissioning of nuclear power plants as well as from industry, medicine and research. In addition, in accordance with plans announced in 2010, it will be necessary to dispose of some 200,000 cubic metres of mostly LLW that are being removed from the Asse radioactive waste disposal facility, a salt dome which proved to be unstable. The programme also includes some 100,000 cubic metres of waste from uranium enrichment operations at Urenco's plant at Gronau.

Hendricks said: "With the disposal programme, we are creating transparency and robust planning for the disposal of nuclear waste, taking into account the opinions of citizens particularly concerned about an extension of the Konrad mine ... It has been a special concern to take the interests of the local population [into account]."


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