Nukewatch Quarterly Winter 2021-2022
By Christine Manwiller
On September 17, 2021 Gorleben, the highly controversial nuclear waste dump site in Lower Saxony will close. The former salt mine was chosen by government officials in 1977 to be the final repository for high-level waste. This proposal was permanently discarded by the waste management organization Bundesgesellschaft für Endlagerung (BGE) with their 2021 report. In it, a total of 90 sites were identified as being geologically acceptable. The Gorleben salt dome was not included in this list.
Geological issues have always caused criticism of the proposed facility. Critics called the site unsuitable, according to Deutsch Welle, “arguing that the salt in the ground could weaken containment structures and cause radioactive leaks.” In addition, a lack of consultation with local residents or municipalities, and the steamroller approach taken by the government inflamed the controversy. Gorle
ben became the battleground for tens of thousands of farmers, anti-nuclear activists, scientists, medical workers, and students who organized dozens of protests. In 1979, over 100,000 attended a Berlin protest, making it one of the largest in the history of West Germany. The idea of building a waste reactor fuel reprocessing plant at the Gorleben site was abandoned in 1979 largely because of the intense public outcry. However, plans for the permanent waste repository continued, and shipments of “Castor” waste casks continued to arrive and to be stored above-ground awaiting placement underground.
On May 3, 1980 some 5,000 protesters converged on a test drilling site and built a large resistance camp they named the Free Republic of Wendland. After a month, police moved in and destroyed the encampment, but the movement was energized, and shipments of waste from 1995-2011 were regularly interrupted by demonstrations involving thousands of protesters. The site received a total of 13 shipments. According to one report, the first transport held five Castor casks of “reprocessing” waste fuel elements, and the remaining 12 shipments totaled 108 Castor casks, each holding 28 canisters. The
“vitrified” or glassified waste was shipped back to Gorleben after first being transferred to France for reprocessing. The last shipment of waste in 2011 incited strong public outrage, with protestors again physically blocking vehicles. Twenty-thousand police were required to hold back the protestors.
Cancellation of the Gorleben dump is a significant win for the local community and for organized anti-nuclear activism. Germany’s state secretary for the environment, Jochen Flasbarth said in September 2021, “I hope that the wounds in [the region of] Wendland can heal now that the decades-long dispute over Gorleben is over…. Gorleben stood [as] a major social conflict in Germany for over three decades.”
However, the fight is far from over as the search continues for a permanent reactor waste abandonment facility. Germany is faced with 1,900 Castor casks of the 1-million-year radioactive hazard, which hold about 27,000 cubic meters of waste. According to BGE chairman Stefan Studt, this inventory accounts for “only five percent of Germany’s radioactive waste