A German law has recently come into effect ordering the cleanup of 126,000 barrels of radioactive waste at the Asse nuclear dump site. But it seems the process could take a lot longer than locals initially hoped for.
Wiegel, the wife of a farmer, says she doesn’t have any concerns about drinking the water here.
“Obviously you can’t worry about it all the time,” she says. “Most people living here tend to push it out of their minds, to be honest.”
Wiegel is not just a resident here, she’s also a member of the citizen group ‘aufpASSEn’ – meaning ‘watch out’ in German – which helps raise awareness about issues from the Asse nuclear waste site.
The Asse site used to be one Germany’s most productive salt mines until it was closed down in 1964. Shortly thereafter it was bought by the German government and used as a storage site for the country’s low to medium-level radioactive waste for more than a decade. The barrels, most of which came directly as nuclear waste from power plants, were stored in empty chambers already dug out by the salt miners.
But, while there is no nuclear waste now being brought in, there are still thousands of drums down in the salt chambers. Emrich says the condition of many of the barrels is unknown and that’s why exploratory drilling is now taking place. In the 50 years since they were dropped in, many barrels are believed to have rusted and may be leaking.
And, he says that the mine itself is also unstable. Water has been seeping into the mine from groundwater runoff for years. That’s why new, more stable, access shafts are now being designed for the planned waste removal.
The barrels of low to medium radioactive waste were stored in Asse between 1967 and 1978
“Since 1988 water has been coming into the mine,” Emrich explains. “People have realized that this site isn’t safe. After all, if more and more water comes in, there is always the chance that the mine floods completely.”
The fear is that, through the pressure created by a flooded mine, nuclear waste could be pushed back up to the surface, contaminating local water supplies.
However, once the waste removal work begins, one big question remains: where will the radioactive material be stored once it’s brought up? Locals are worried that authorities will decide on an aboveground storage facility, right next to the mine site.