Contamination Fears Stoked by Water Leak at German Nuclear Site

By Petra Sorge | May 24, 2024

Water is leaking into an underground nuclear waste facility in Germany creating fears about toxic contamination of groundwater and highlighting the legacy that the shuttered nuclear industry has left behind.

The operator of the storage site says that salt water is entering deeper than before into the area close to where radioactive waste is kept. The Asse II facility — located less than an hour outside Wolfsburg, home of automaker Volkswagen AG — will be held to account by state lawmakers on Monday.

The site is an old salt mine, with a crust that serves as a barrier to stop radiation from entering the environment. There are about 126,000 barrels of uranium, thorium, plutonium and other toxic materials stored there and the worry is that the leak could lead to groundwater contamination.

It speaks to Germany’s fears about the safety of nuclear power which drove the nation to switch off its last three nuclear power stations last year. That decision was fueled by the Fukushima disaster and lead to a greater reliance on coal-fired power in the short-term.

Environment minister Steffi Lemke said that she took the situation “very seriously” on Tuesday, adding that the recovery of the waste should have highest priority. The Lower Saxony state’s minister Christian Meyer said that the events “open a new chapter of the nuclear disaster”.

There have been leaks at the Asse II site for years and it was decided a decade ago to shut the facility. The operator has since tightened controls and started investigations. So far, out of the 12 cubic meters (3,170.1 gallons), or 50 bath tubs, of saline water that seep into the mine every day, it has been possible to remove almost all of it with pumps.

But more recently, water is draining further into the ground, closer to the hazardous waste.

Water is now leaking into areas 725 meters (2,378.6 feet) underground, the operator said last week. That’s dangerously close to a storage chamber located at 750 meters. The water hasn’t yet reached the barrels of waste, a spokeswoman for the operator said.

Residents and activists filed a legal complaint on Friday, asking the state operator to entirely shut the site and remove the toxic waste, according to a statement.

“I’m worried about the health of my family and neighbors and the impact on nature,” said resident and plaintiff Anja Haase. “Ten years after the law came into force, our patience has finally run out.”

So far, none of the barrels have been removed. Nuclear waste recovery — an undertaking which has never been done anywhere — will not start before 2033 as scientific methods to do it safely are still being investigated. It’s estimated it will cost at least €4.7 billion ($5.1 billion).

On Monday the operator and local government officials will give a report to the state environment committee. It’s likely they’ll face questions as to why progress to recover the radioactive barrels is taking so long.

Topics Training Development Germany

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