European Energy Review (EER)

Sitting on a nuclear bombshell

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Courtesy of Courtesy of European Energy Review (EER)

The images resemble production stills from a cheap Hollywood thriller. Some 125,000 rusty yellow and brown barrels are dumped carelessly into taverns deep below the ground, covered with dirt or salt, and left there to wait out time. The barrels contain nuclear waste, and they are located inside Asse, a research repository for lowand mid-level nuclear waste in Lower Saxony, near Hannover. Here, German scientists in the 1960s launched research into nuclear waste storage, a project that has gone terribly wrong.

German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel in September called Asse ‘Europe’s most problematic nuclear facility’ after it surfaced that since 1988, some 12,000 litres of sodium chloride have been gushing into the site each day. Officials say 60 million litres of groundwater, which in this former salt mine has turned into sodium chloride, have so far seeped into Asse and have been contaminated by leaking barrels of radioactive waste. This has created a nasty nuclear cocktail that might even mix with groundwater in the region. Moreover, according to a report by the Environment Ministry of Lower Saxony, the entire structure is in danger of collapsing. Asse, Gabriel said, ‘has as many holes as a Swiss cheese.’

The severity of the problem, which has developed into a major scandal in Germany, has long been known. State and science officials had been informed early on, but said they didn’t grasp the magnitude of the problem. Many people in the region don’t believe that. They say the problem was swept under the rug. ‘I think a public discussion about the problems at Asse has been deliberately prevented,’ Stefan Wenzel, the environment policy speaker of the Green Party in Lower Saxony, tells EER. ‘People in my constituency feel deceived, they are angry, they fear property value losses, and they have lost trust in the actors on the ground.’

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