Sun Sep 27th, 2009 at 07:44:55 AM EST
As most readers of ET may be aware, nuclear power is a hot-button issue in Germany. And perhaps the most contentious sub-issue is that of nuclear waste final storage.
Germany has two designated final storage sites: the Asse-II shaft, notionally a research site and in practice a dump for nuclear waste with light and medium radioactivity, and Gorleben, also officially still in the exploration stage, but in practice holding nuclear waste of high radioactivity.
The focus of the debate is on the choice of the sites. While the nuclear industry (and their political backers in the CDU and CSU) insisted that the sites are geologically stable (watertight) and have been chosen as the best site after careful consideration, the critics alleged the opposite on both counts.
Over the summer, both sites have been subject to scandals that appear to confirm precisely what the critics said: there is a permanent groundwater leak in mis-managed Asse, and an eighties document turned up confirming political pressure on scientists to give the nod to Gorleben.
Along with a few other negative news, these two scandals put the nuclear issue back into daily politics, and brought some fire into the otherwise very lacklustre campaign for tomorrow's Federal Elections in Germany (link to nanne's diary).
1. Krümmel shutdown
What triggered the new political debate wasn't the dump sites, but the emergency shutdown of the Krümmel nuclear plant near Hamburg on 4 July (see "Not a reliable operator"). What made it special was that the plant was just re-started after a two-year security upgrade, yet the events were almost a replay of the emergency shutdown that necessitated that upgrade (see Brunsbüttel, Krümmel (German nuclear controversy)): an uncontrolled transformer fire inhibits operation, staff reacts improperly, company then tries to limit the information flow, scandal still blows in their face, so a top manager is fired.
It is an interesting aside that the manager fired in 2007 previously worked on the Gorleben final storage project.
2. Asse flooding
The Asse site, which is decades old, has long been a scandal because nuclear waste was dumped mindlessly in the caverns, without proper containment or a consideration of an eventual re-deployment into an official final storage site. Things got worse when what shouldn't happen happened: through cracks in the salt dome, groundwater leaked in. After an August 2008 report pillorying the general mismanagement of the site, the government decided to fire the operators and give control to the Federal Bureau for Radiation Protection (BfS) (see old Salon discussion).
BfS is doing a thorough check of the site, and keeps revealing more poisons, more mismanagement, and cases of sloppy accounting. This peaked on 14 July, when BfS's head revealed that they found another radioactive puddle, that the water inflow is unstoppable and increasing, and recommended an immediate closure (see this comment).
In end effect, it is now expected that Asse has to be emptied and decontaminated at a cost of multiple billion Euros. And small revelations are still coming in -- the amount of plutonium was mis-stated by a factor of 3, tissue samples from the first two people to die in an accident in a German nuclear plant were dumped there.
3. Site choice and the document on Gorleben
To see one reason why critics think that site choice was political, it is enough to look at a map (taken from Netzwerk Regenbogen):
As you can see, Asse and Gorleben are next to the onetime Iron Curtain. As are two other sites: the proposed replacement for Asse, and the onetime East German storage site at Morsleben.
What you can't see on the map is that (1) the sites are in low population density areas, (2) North Germany was an SPD region, while potential sites with granite or other hard rock are in CDU/CSU dominated Southern Germany -- and aint' it convenient when potential local protesters would be the opponent's voters anyway.
That much is speculation, but it is a fact that Gorleben was chosen rapidly under strange circumstances, and then an in-depth consideration of alternative sites was denied by the then CDU government.
What happened? In April, a scientist who took part in the preparation of the key study on the site's suitability claimed that politicians exerted direct pressure on them: they were to drop or re-edit sections mentioning geological risks, and drop any indication that other sites may be better or should be checked.
Then on 8 September, Süddeutsche Zeitung revealed the existence of a document from 13 May 1983 confirming the scientist. It is a letter sent by two ministers to the responsible "Physical-Technical Federal Institute" (PTB), the forerunner of BfS.
PTB was solely responsible for writing the summary report on the research on Gorleben. But the letter suggested in no uncertain terms that
- a new first chapter be added in coordination with the interior ministry,
- this chapter and the summary shall declare the suitability of the site explicitly;
- the section on open questions was to be closed with a declaration that those won't affect the suitability of the site;
- the section on a potential groundwater leak shall be de-fanged.
You can imagine that this didn't sit well with local opponents, who staged a tractor rally to Berlin in the days before (see Salon and again). Who have a new trump card: it became clear only recently that the salt mining rights necessary to dig the tunnels, normally belonging to whoever owns ther land on the surface, were only leased by the government, not taken over permanently -- and the lease runs out in 2015.
Most peasants are expected to refuse an extension. Thus, arguing that the site is unlikely to be finished by then, federal environment minister Sigmar Gabriel (SPD) declared Gorleben practically dead [spot the bilingual fun].
Gabriel also pushed for a document review based on the leak to Süddeutsche Zeitung. One finding: two days before the letter to PTB, Kohl's chancellery wrote the interior ministry that a demand for the research of other potential sites be dropped.
4. Merkel and Gabriel
Know the players. Sigmar Gabriel was at one time considered the political heir of Gerhard Schröder: followed him as PM of Lower Saxony, and was seen as potential heir as chancellor, too. Until he lost the 2003 regional elections.
As a politician of the Schröder school, he is not without contradictions as environment minister, either. He defended renewables, but he is also pushing "clean coal". (See also Where is my coal renaissance?) He is a firebrand in rhetoric who often confronted fellow ministers from the CDU, but his vehemence can backfire in public opinion. However, following the above scandals, he was the sole top SPD guy searching for real political confrontation in the campaign -- even attacking Merkel herself.
Now Merkel was definitely no outsider to the story.
As then chancellor Helmut Kohl's environment minister in the nineties, Merkel trained herself in Machiavellian games just in the nuclear issue.
On one hand, alongside the high-profile advocates in the economic ministry, her ministry acted as a low-profile enabler for the nuclear industry: giving permits and preparing studies. On the other hand, when the scandal of external contamination on the CASTOR nuclear waste transport containers blew up, she pre-empted questions about how this could happen under her watch with a show of publicly professed outrage directed at energy companies.
In the current discussion, the low-profile enabler past came back to haunt Merkel: she was attacked for her decisions to extend the life of Morsleben (the former East German dump site that wasn't up to West German standards), as well as Asse (see Salon).
Then, after Gabriel's attacks led to nervous counter-attacks from Merkel's aides, even the SPD's grey chancellor candidate, foreign minister Franz-Walter Steinmeier pitched in, and began to thematize the CDU's suspected intent to undermine the nuclear phaseout. This led to the only lively exchange during the super-boring TV debate of the two.
5. Strange studies
Gabriel's campaigning didn't change the SPD's poll numbers much, but it definitely put the CDU and CSU on a defensive.
Recently, not even sharp-shooters like Hessen state's Roland Koch speak of new nuclear plants -- all are back to the 'moderate' default Merkel position of demanding an extended life for existing plants only. They started to call nuclear a "bridge technology" (a bridge until renewables can fully take over, that is; though one wonders how that rhymes with plans to cut PV feed-in rates).
But, the leak of two government-sponsored studies implies that they aren't entirely honest.
On 14 September, Financial Times Deutschland reported that the research ministry led by Anette Schavan (CDU, Merkel confidante) sponsored a study which considered alternatives to Gorleben, and played through hypothetical scenarios, involving the construction of new nuclear plants. The study was marked confidential.
Just two days later, again FTD revealed that the economy ministry started a study on the safety of new nuclear power plant types -- without informing the responsible environment ministry. What is the need? Is this the Bliar method of silently preparing the way (suppressing contradictory studies and secretly preparing supportive ones) and then roll out after an election?
Well, the CDU/CSU hastened to deny that they want new plants, but none of their explanations added up for me:
- "we still have to know this" (what for?),
- "we have to keep our technological knowledge up-to-date" (what for?),
- "we need to know about the safety next to our borders" (what could you do if you don't like it?),
- "we have to update the security of our own plants, too" (why not let the energy companies pay for that? and what relevance is research specified to focus on types of plants not extant in Germany?)
As you can imagine, this was more ammunition for Gabriel and the Greens -- also against the new star of the conservatives, the young, aristocratic and neolib minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg (CSU).
You can also imagine that in response, Gabriel and others were attacked for going overboard -- followed by pledges that even a CDU/CSU+FDP government won't build new plants. But what I found interesting is how the media wishing for their victory chimed in: for example SPIEGEL wrote several articles dismissing the criticism as totally overblown.