What now for Germany's remaining nuclear waste?

April 15 also effectively ended a decades-long political dispute in Germany, even though there are still voices demanding that nuclear power be extended

Dense fumes from a factory
Dense fumes from a factory


Germany has shut down its last nuclear power stations. But the issue isn't going anywhere, as the country faces the question of what to do with its remaining nuclear waste. Nuclear energy in Germany has been history since mid-April. At one time, up to 20 nuclear power plants fed electricity into the German grid. But all that is over now. The last three nuclear power plants ended their operations on April 15.

For German Environment Minister Steffi Lemke, of the Green Party, the date marks a new dawn: "I think we should now put all our energy into pushing forward photovoltaics, wind power storage, energy saving, and energy efficiency, and stop these backward-looking debates," she said in a recent radio interview.

April 15 also effectively ended a decades-long political dispute in Germany, even though there are still voices demanding that nuclear power be extended, because of the tense situation in the energy market.

The waste issue

And yet, the issue of nuclear energy will linger for Germany for some time yet, because the reactors have to be dismantled, and what happens to the final disposal of the radioactive nuclear waste has not yet been clarified.

Like almost all other countries that have operated or continue to operate nuclear power plants, Germany has yet to find a place to safely store the spent fuel. Currently, Germany's nuclear waste is in interim storage at the sites of abandoned power plants, but the law requires that nuclear waste be safely stored in underground repositories for several millennia.

"The interim storage facilities are designed to last for quite some time," Wolfram König, president of the Federal Office for the Safety of Nuclear Waste Disposal (BASE), told DW. "They are supposed to bridge the time until a final repository is available. … What we are looking for is geological depth, a suitable layer of salt, in granite or in clay rock, which will ensure that no radioactive substances reach the surface again for an indefinitely long period of time."

Location, location, location

That's a principle that Germany shares with all of the 30 or so countries that operate or have operated nuclear power plants: Radioactive waste is to be disposed of underground. But where exactly? For a long time, Gorleben, located in the Wendland region of Lower Saxony, northeastern Germany, was the site most favored by politicians looking for an underground repository for nuclear waste.

But Gorleben became the location of fierce protests against nuclear energy, so politicians decided a few years ago to abandon the site. Now the search is on throughout Germany, at more than 90 possible sites. "We can and must assume that the search process in Germany, with the construction of a final repository, will take approximately as long as we have used nuclear energy, namely 60 years," König said.

Meanwhile, the dismantling of Germany's 20 or so nuclear power plants that have been built will also take time. That, according to König, is the responsibility of their operators, who estimate it could take between 10 and 15 years.

A worldwide headache

So far, reactors have been shut down in Italy, Kazakhstan, and Lithuania, while other countries, including the United Arab Emirates and Belarus, are building new nuclear plants.

But the permanent, safe storage of radioactive waste is an unresolved issue everywhere.

Finland is furthest along in its planning. In a report by German public broadcaster ARD, Vesa Lakaniemi, administrative head in the municipality of Eurajoki, southern Finland, talked about the construction of the final storage facility for nuclear waste in his town: "Whoever profits from electricity must also take responsibility for the waste. And that's how it is in Finland." The estimated construction costs for the Eurajoki repository is €3.5 billion ($3.8 billion).

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), there are currently 422 nuclear reactors in operation worldwide, with an average age of about 31 years. The recent "World Nuclear Industry Status Report" said that, despite a few countries building new nuclear power stations, there was no evidence of a "nuclear renaissance": In 1996, some 17.5% of the world's energy was produced in nuclear reactors – in 2021 it was below 10%. Nevertheless, the radioactive legacy will occupy Germany for many years to come.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

Author: Jens Thurau

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