High-level radioactive waste programs are floundering worldwide. No nation has yet established a workable, permanent storage site for high-level atomic waste; indeed, no nation has even a successful "interim" storage policy in place.

The concept of deep geological storage of high-level waste, once considered worldwide as the most promising "disposal" option, is increasingly falling into disfavor. The proposed Yucca Mountain site in Nevada is years behind schedule, and according to a new economic analysis, its construction could cost a whopping $54 Billion. In Canada, a scientific advisory body to the country's nuclear agency recently recommended against geological storage as scientifically suspect and politically impossible. England recently rejected deep geological storage at the only site under study, at Sellafield. Although geological storage at a different site, as yet unfound, has not been ruled out, four Members of the House of Lords made an official visit to the U.S. in May 1998 to look for new waste storage ideas.

In France, summer 1997 revelations of contamination problems at the nuclear reprocessing facility at La Hague, and the subsequent temporary closure of some beaches along the Normandy coast, shattered the notions that the French nuclear program is environmentally sound and popularly-supported. The government's subsequent announcement that it will begin a search for a geological repository has prompted anti-nuclear organizing and activity unprecedented in that nation.

But it is in Germany, where the radioactive waste issue is the most controversial, that the lessons are most directly relevant to the U.S. experience.

The German and U.S. nuclear programs are quite similar. Each has a mixture of Pressurized and Boiling Water Reactors that provide about 20% of the nation's electricity. Both countries have seen operating reactors close early, and no new reactor orders are considered feasible for the foreseeable future in either nation.

Both Germany and the U.S. experienced large and effective anti-nuclear power movements. The U.S. movement began somewhat earlier, and in the late 1970s German activists regularly traveled to places like Seabrook, New Hampshire, to learn non-violent action strategies. During the 1980s and early 1990s, however, both movements de-emphasized demonstrations for legal and political work.

Both nations have chosen geological storage as their preferred high-level waste storage approach, but neither nation has been able to implement this option. In Germany, the chosen site is a salt dome near the small farming community of Gorleben. As is the case everywhere a high-level waste dump has been proposed, this site has caused large-scale public opposition in the region, known as Wendland. In addition, the owner of much of the land above the dome is a leader of the opposition, and has refused to sell his land to the government. For these reasons, and due to scientific concerns about the adequacy of the site, the Gorleben project is about as far behind schedule as Yucca Mountain is in the U.S., and faces the same type of uncertain future.

The major difference between the nuclear programs in Germany and the U.S. is that Germany has attempted to begin an "interim" storage program, with so far disastrous results.

An above-ground temporary storage facility, with room for 420 large CASTOR casks of high-level waste, was built near Gorleben. When the government announced it would ship its first cask to the site, early in 1995, local residents and anti-nuclear activists formed a coalition to protest the shipment. 100 new "Burger Initiative" grassroots groups were formed. Not knowing the exact day of the shipment, they called for demonstrations on day X, and X quickly became the symbol of the new movement. They adopted the slogan, Wir Stellen Uns Quer (We Stand in the Way).

The shipment came on April 25, 1995. Three thousand people came, on short notice, to the small town of Dannenberg, where the cask was removed from the train it had traveled on from southern Germany and was placed on a truck for the final 8 miles to Gorleben. The shipment, including the police presence necessary to remove the 3,000 people, cost some $15 million.

On May 8, 1996, the government tried again. This time, it was more prepared, and 19,000 police accompanied the single cask the entire length of its shipment. The protestors were more prepared too, and 9,000 attempted to block the shipment when it reached Dannenberg. The resulting confrontations resulted in numerous arrests, injuries and a bill that totaled some $40 million.

The third and probably last shipment to Gorleben came in early March 1997. Six casks of high-level waste were accompanied by the largest mobilization of force in post-war history--30,000 police. Tens of thousands of protestors attempted to block the shipment throughout the nation--20,000 in the Dannenberg/Gorleben area alone, where more than 500 were arrested and 175 injured. Roads in the region were barricaded and dug up by local farmers. Rail lines were sabotaged. The cost to the government: $100 million.

In March 1998, the government moved six waste casks to a different storage facility (which holds the remains of a decommissioned experimental thorium reactor) at Ahaus, near the Dutch border. This time, the government switched tactics and announced a shipment date, but then started the shipment six days early in an effort to throw off protestors. In the ensuing chaos (the 30,000 police guarding the shipment were also thrown off by the early start), one policeman was killed when run over by a train. 7,000 protestors reached Ahaus anyway, but with no time to plan, mounted a less disciplined protest. Scores were hurt, more than 1,000 were arrested. Thousands more protested across the transport route, which traverses major cities, including a violent outbreak in the college town of Goettingen. The financial cost: once again, $100 million. The political cost: perhaps terminal.

In April, the French government announced that German CASTOR canisters bringing fuel to La Hague for reprocessing were emitting radiation five times above the accepted limit.

On May 7, the Social Democrats, who are widely expected to win the 1998 German elections, formally demanded an end to all nuclear waste shipments. On May 12, according to Reuters, French officials said that contamination from the CASTORs has exceeded radiation limits by up to 3,000 times. (Indeed, NIRS' own measurements, taken at Gorleben and Ahaus, indicated contamination levels some 50 times above background at 15 feet--it's not surprising that the casks and trains are contaminated). Meanwhile, the police union, citing the contamination and the fact that thousands of police must stand near the casks for lengthy periods, called for an end to the shipments.

On May 20, German nuclear plant operators admitted they have known about the high contamination levels in reprocessing transports to La Hague since the 1980s. On May 21, Environment Minister Angela Merkel, the main government spokesperson in favor of the shipments to both La Hague and Gorleben, suspended all shipments anywhere. On May 22, the Social Democrats, joined by the Greens and Free Democrats, demanded Ms. Merkel's immediate resignation and called for a parliamentary debate on the shipments for May 27.

On May 25, Merkel issued a ten-point plan to improve the safety and public accountability of the shipments. But it's probably too late. Once the Social Democrats gain power, as most observers believe they will, the shipments to the "interim" storage facilities will end. Attempting to bully the shipments through over public dissent, dismissing the concerns of local and regional governments (in both the Gorleben and Ahaus regions), and failing to secure the safety and environmental soundness of the transports, has resulted in a transparently bankrupt policy with virtually no support anywhere in the nation. The "interim" storage program in Germany, is, in all likelihood, over.

The lessons for the U.S. should be clear: 1) commercial high-level waste shipments will, just as in Germany, force the anti-nuclear movement to return to demonstrations and visible protests; 2) failing to gain the support of state and local governments by providing sufficient training and resources to cope with accidents, protests, and even the unexpected appearance of thousands of police, will ensure the failure of any waste transport, as will failure to honestly address the concerns of police and emergency workers unions; 3) dismissing the claims of those who raise questions and issues about the safety of the transport casks likely will backfire.

Indeed, it could be argued that failure of an "interim" high-level atomic waste policy is inevitable in the U.S., because an "interim" policy is essentially no policy at all and that is self-evident to the public. "Interim" storage is perceived in Europe as it will be here: a stop-gap measure aimed at protecting the nuclear power industry over the concerns of the citizenry. That kind of backwards program will not work.--Michael Mariotte, May 27, 1998.


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