The unloved legacy of nuclear power


DThe fate of nuclear energy in Germany has been clarified: in just three years, the last nuclear power plants will be shut down and taken offline. In many other countries nuclear power still has a long life. Either new power plants are planned and built, as in Russia, France, Finland, China or Turkey, or their terms are extended, as in America, Switzerland or in Sweden, which is praised for its policy of climate neutrality. However, one thing is common to all states: the unresolved legacy of nuclear power generation – nuclear waste.

Andreas Mihm

This is recalled by a report published on Monday by eight environmental groups under the leadership of the Heinrich BOll Foundation, which is close to the Greens. Everyone is known to be as critical of the atom as well informed. The nearly 150-page "World Atomic Waste Report" is a hard work in which an attempt is made, at least throughout Europe to give a precise overview of the unpopular heritage, including its technical, logistical and financial risks.

Not before the turn of the century

Its results do not exactly make the reader feel confident. Although dozens of countries use nuclear energy, there is no country in the world that has a functioning repository deep in the earth. In Germany, the search process is just beginning, no one seriously expects a repository to go into operation before the turn of the century.

The other side of the coin is that the temporarily built interim storage facilities, as in Germany, are slowly reaching their capacity limits. "The problem is that these interim storage facilities have not been designed for such long-term use, even for safety reasons," says geologist Marcos Buser.

In Europe alone, according to the census of authors led by former Green MEP Rebecca Harms, there are more than 60,000 tonnes of spent fuel rods with high-level radioactive waste, mainly from France, Germany and the United Kingdom. Quantities from Russia and Slovakia are not included. Harms calls the spent fuel rods the biggest challenge. Although the used fuel makes up only a minor part of the nuclear waste, it is "the hardest part of the problem to solve because of its high and long-lasting radioactivity and the heat development".

In addition, there are 2.5 million cubic meters of light to medium radioactive waste. In Germany, it will one day be buried in the Konrad mine near Salzgitter, and the commissioning of this repository is a long way behind any timetable. The demolition of old nuclear power plants is expected to increase Europe-wide by 1.4 million cubic meters.

A possibility for climate-neutral power generation?

The report makes it clear that the states do not apply uniform classifications for nuclear waste, which makes a reliable assessment difficult. Also unclear are the costs, which cause the safe keeping of the remainders of the nuclear power generation over thousands of years. Basically, no country has so far reliably estimated the amount of its "perpetual burdens" and explained how it intended to finance the difference to the insufficient reserves. Ben Wealer, an industrial engineer from the Technical University of Berlin, complains that in many countries there is a big gap between the costs to be covered and the financial resources that are planned for them. Unpredictable risks could lead to large increases in costs. As an example, reference is made to the experience of the Asse repository, where the recovery of improperly stored nuclear waste will keep the country for years to come.

While nuclear power is praised internationally as a possibility of climate-neutral power generation in the climate protection debate, the authors of the "World Nuclear Waste Report" reject this view. "The pan-European nuclear waste problem shows, not least, that the energy transition must be driven forward vigorously across Europe," says Ellen Ueberschar, the board member of the Heinrich BOll Foundation.

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