The closure of Germany’s Gorleben mine was announced on 17 September in a joint press release from Germany’s Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety; the Lower Saxony Ministry for the Environment, Energy, Building and Climate Protection; the Federal Office for the Safety of Nuclear Waste Management (BASE); and the Bundesgesellschaft für Endlagerung/Finallagerung mbH (BGE – Federal company for final storage). 

The Gorleben salt dome in Lower Saxony was withdrawn from the list of potential sites for a repository for geological reasons based on an interim report by BGE on on 28 September 2020. Since then, BGE and the Federal Environment Ministry (BMU) have looked at how to proceed with the Gorleben mine. The BMU has now decided to commission BGE with the decommissioning of the mine.

Environment State Secretary Jochen Flasbarth said “In the site selection process, a repository site should be found with the best possible security. It is already clear that the Gorleben salt dome does not comply. Since the BGE interim report, it has been scientifically proven that there are many geologically more suitable locations. The Gorleben repository chapter will be closed from today. I hope that the wounds in Wendland caused by the decades-long dispute over Gorleben can now heal. Gorleben represented a major social conflict in Germany for over three decades."

Lower Saxony Minister for the Environment, Energy, Building and Climate Protection, Olaf Lies noted: “As of today, there is no longer a back door. That is the message and the enormously important sign for the entire region because the last few decades were mainly characterised by the resistance to a nuclear repository in Gorleben…. As of today, “Gorleben” is definitely a thing of the past. From today on it is a matter of leaving this behind and developing and implementing concepts for the future of Wendland, because this region has enormous potential not only through its natural landscapes and tourism, but also for the climate and energy transition."

BASE President  Wolfram König said the Gorleben repository is history “but the task of solving the repository question remains”. He added: “The final chapter of the exit from high-risk technology has yet to be written. It's about good science, transparency, participation and willingness to take on responsibility."

BGE management board chairman Stefan Studt welcomed the order to close the Gorleben mine. “This brings an end to a chapter that was also painful for the workforce at our predecessor company. Our colleagues here were just as caught up in the storm as many of the actors in the region. BGE benefits both in terms of the mines and in the selection of sites from work that has been done here. For example, exploration techniques have been tested here that can be further developed in the coming years. The construction of the mine itself was also challenging. The experiences of our colleagues are now paying off, for example in the construction of the Konrad repository."

The site selection process for a repository for high-level radioactive waste began in 2017. The course of the procedure is regulated by the Site Selection Act and comprises three phases. The first phase is divided into two parts in order to enable the public to participate at an early stage. In September 2020, BGE in its interim report named  areas for which preliminary safety investigations would be carried out for the first time in the second step of the first phase and, at this stage,  the Gorleben salt dome was dropped from the selection process, Initially, 139 salt domes were considered – Gorleben and 78 other salt domes were excluded after being assessed against geoscientific weighing criteria. BGE is currently preparing further investigations of the 90 areas, including 60 salt domes.

Gorleben had been earmarked as a site for nuclear waste disposal almost 40 years ago but local  residents rejected the decision, arguing that the salt in the ground could weaken containment structures and cause radioactive leaks. The site became the focus of Germany's anti-nuclear movement with activists staging sit-in protests and blocking trains bringing containers of nuclear waste to the facility. The mine had been largely inoperative since 2013 and almost all the equipment and machinery at the mine had been removed.

Germany is seeking storage for 1900 containers of radioactive waste. The containers make up only 5% of German nuclear waste but 99% of its radioactivity, according to BGE chairman Stefan Studt. The 90 areas shortlisted as potential sites are currently being vetted taking into account a number of factors, including population density. BGE says it needs to find a location by 2031 and hopes to begin storing containers of radioactive waste at the chosen site by 2050.  Studt, said the salt Gorleben dome would be dismantled to its original state within 10 years. It is not yet clear how much this will cost but it currently costs €20 million a year to keep it open and to date, €1.9 billion have been invested in the project. 

Olaf Bandt, chairman of the environmental organisation BUND, said: "The shutdown shows the strength of opposition movements." But it is also a reminder of  the current search for a repository. "Participation and transparency are an indispensable part of this generational task," emphasised Bandt.

An above-ground interim storage facility at Gorleben, where more than a hundred transport containers with highly radioactive waste are stored, is not affected by the decision. However environmental organisations are also seeking a solution to this. “The storage of the Castor containers is only permitted there until 2034, said anti-nuclear activist Jochen Stay.