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Germany battles nuclear waste dilemma -

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Germany battles nuclear waste dilemma

Broadcast: 11/05/2010

Reporter: Emma Alberici

Germany has recently reversed plans to phase out nuclear power by 2020, but is still trying to
solve the problem of what to do with nuclear waste.

Transcript

LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: In the great climate change debate, nuclear power is often mentioned as a
necessary option among others to bridge the gap until other clean alternative sources of power
become available. But of course any nuclear solution raises the problem of what to do with the
waste.

In Germany they've recently reversed plans to phase out nuclear energy by 2020, but the waste is
still a dilemma for the industrial powerhouse.

Europe correspondent Emma Alberici travelled to Germany for Lateline.

EMMA ALBERICI, REPORTER: Germany is keen to show the world that it cares about the environment.
Even here in Bavaria where the power plant dwarfs the nearby town, nothing more than water vapour
is spewing from the stacks.

Having your radiation levels tested is the first step for a visitor to this nuclear reactor just
outside Munich. Before you enter the site, there's a white jump suit to slip on, protective shoes
and a monitor which constantly assesses your exposure to radioactive material.

Johann Seidl has been working here for 30 years. He has no anxieties about the potential impact on
his health.

JOHANN SEIDL, ISAR NUCLEAR POWER PLANT: Our employees, it's from the radiation. It's lower than the
people that works in aeroplane. When they fly trans-Atlantic.

EMMA ALBERICI: He says pilots who spend a lot of time flying at high altitudes register higher
radiation levels than he does.

Still, anything taken into the power station has to be carried in a thick plastic bag and each
department you enter is guarded by a 30 centimetre-thick door.

The German government fell in love with nuclear power in the 1960s. It was considered a cheap and
reliable source of energy.

But what to do with all that nuclear waste? In 1967 the decision was made to use this salt mine:
Asse II.

The Environment minister at the time ignored the advice of scientists, and now, 40 years later,
this small community is paying the price.

Between 1967 and 1978 126,000 barrels of nuclear waste were dumped here, literally, many of them
cracking and breaking open in the process.

Water is now leaking into the chamber at a rate of 12,000 litres a day and the 250 people who work
here are in a race against time to stop the leak reaching the waste and that waste entering the
town's water supply.

Aneta Palitz conducts educational tours of what has become the most controversial site in Germany.

ANNETTE PARLITZ, ASSE MINE TOUR GUIDE: We've got to protect the radioactive waste from water. It's
vital. Of course it's vital.

Waters are collected here on this plastic material. You can see like water but 300 grams of salt
dissolved in it.

EMMA ALBERICI: And the problem is that you don't know what's gonna happen in 1,000 years or one
million years.

ANNETTE PARLITZ: Not even in 10 years.

EMMA ALBERICI: Vernon Nording took over the site last year. He belongs to Germany's Federal Office
for Radiation Protection.

In 1967, when this was first used to store nuclear waste, as I understand it, scientists, indeed
the government, already knew that water was getting in here.

WERNER NORDING, FEDERAL OFFICE FOR RADIATION PROTECTION (voiceover translation): It's true that
scientists warned that the mine was damp, but that wasn't taken seriously then.

EMMA ALBERICI: Why not?

WERNER NORDING (voiceover translation): I don't know.

EMMA ALBERICI: When Irmela Wrede bought this property 15 years ago, the problems at Asser were
already well-known by the operator of the mine, but they kept it quiet from the public.

Now that her carpentry business is well-established, it's not easy to move away from this place, a
place that most Germans now regard as a kind of ticking bomb.

IRMELA WREDE, ASSE RESIDENT: I am a little bit afraid because we're near the nuclear waste and we
all here in the region are afraid that nuclear waste gets into the fresh deepwater.

EMMA ALBERICI: Irmela Wrede took the local authority to court to have the files made public. The
case was dropped after the government agreed to consult the community about its plans for Asse.

Earlier this year, the authority decided to move the barrels to an as-yet-unnamed dry mine.

IRMELA WREDE: The nuclear power is like flying with a plane and over the whole world there isn't a
landing place. You understand?

You start with the nuclear power and don't know where in the whole world you can do your waste.
There is no safe place.

EMMA ALBERICI: So at plants like Asse near Munich the nuclear waste is still stored on site. All
nuclear power plants in Germany are forced to keep their waste on site until a decision can be made
about where to store it for the long term.

JOHANN SEIDL: It's the waste from the fuel elements. We have a little bit (inaudible) waste from
how we work with all this nuclear power plant, but this is not so important. The most important is
inside the pool.

EMMA ALBERICI: Here at the bottom of this pool the spent fuel rods are cooled down and the boric
acid in the distilled water absorbs some of the radiation.

The rods can stay in the pool for up to three years after which they're then moved outside to a
purpose-built temporary storage facility.

Petro Uhlmann was Environment minister with the ruling Christian Democrats before joining Eon,
Germany's biggest energy company.

PETRO UHLMANN, EON ENERGY: We have a very, very strong atomic law, we have very strong authorities
and we have enough money for modernisation and maintenance.

EMMA ALBERICI: Of course, Chernobyl looms large in the minds of people all over the world. It's the
biggest resistance you would have to nuclear energy.

What can you say to convince the public that this is not a threat?

PETRO UHLMANN: I think it's very difficult for us. We have a very secure nuclear power, very high
secure by our nuclear power plants.

We show that since more than 40 years that our nuclear power plants are secure.

EMMA ALBERICI: The problem of waste storage hasn't prevented the German government from granting a
reprieve for atomic energy in the country.

The Isar plant is one of 17 nuclear power stations feeding Germany's national grid, supplying a
quarter of all Germany's power needs.

Under the previous coalition government, the plan was to phase them all out by 2020. The current
administration says the country needs nuclear as a bridge until there's enough renewable energy
being generated to take its place.

Extending the life of this plant will be worth millions for Eon.

Barbel Hohn is the vice -chair of Greens party at the Bundestag in Berlin. She was a member of the
coalition government which lost the election in September last year, replaced by the pro-nuclear,
pro-business Free Democratic Party.

BARBEL HOHN, GREENS PART VICE CHAIRWOMAN: The problem is the risk of this nuclear power plants. The
daily risk, but also the problems we have with nuclear waste, because till now we have no storage
for the nuclear waste and if we decide or if the government now decide for 10 or 15 more years
lifetime of these plants we have about 50 per cent more nuclear waste, you know?

So, that is a burden for the future generations. They will have the cost for 10,000, for 100,000 of
years, you know, and that's not sustainable.

EMMA ALBERICI: Down in the Asse mine a lorry arrives every three weeks to remove the tanks of water
and to deposit them into another nearby salt mine. So far, the water hasn't reached here where the
126,000 barrels of radioactive waste are stored.

WERNER NORDING (voiceover translation): We really can't lose any time because we don't know what
conditions are going to come into Asse. We're under time pressure. We've already had small
leakages; we can't afford to lose any time.

EMMA ALBERICI: Are you happy living in Germany using nuclear energy?

ANNETTE PARLITZ: No, I'm not. I'm not happy about it.

EMMA ALBERICI: The decision to grant a life extension to Germany's 17 nuclear plants will create
more waste and more political headaches in a country that has already spent 40 years and more than
$3 billion in research funding trying to decide what to do with all the radioactive material it's
creating.

Emma Alberici, Lateline.