Nuclear energy in Germany has been history since mid-April. At one time, up to 20 nuclear power plants fed electricity into the German grid. But all that is over now. The last three nuclear power plants ended their operations on April 15.
To Germany’s environment minister Steffi Lemke of the Green Party, the date marks a new dawn: “I think we should now put all our energy into pushing forward photovoltaics, wind power storage, energy saving, and energy efficiency, and stop these backward-looking debates,” she said in a recent radio interview.
April 15 also effectively ended a decades-long political dispute in Germany. In light of the tense situation on the energy market due to Russia’s war in Ukraine, there are still voices demanding that nuclear power be extended.
The waste issue
And yet, the issue of nuclear energy will linger for Germany for some time yet, as the reactors still have to be dismantled, and the final disposal of the radioactive nuclear waste has not yet been clarified.
Like almost all other countries that have operated, or continue to operate nuclear power plants, Germany has yet to find a place to safely store the spent fuel. Currently, Germany’s nuclear waste is in interim storage at the sites of abandoned power plants, but the law requires that nuclear waste be safely stored in underground repositories for several millennia.
“The interim storage facilities are designed to last for quite some time,” Wolfram König, president of the Federal Office for the Safety of Nuclear Waste Disposal (BASE), told DW. “They are supposed to bridge the time until a final repository is available. … What we are looking for is geological depth, a suitable layer of salt, in granite or in clay rock, which will ensure that no radioactive substances reach the surface again for an indefinitely long period of time.”
Location, location, location
That’s a principle that Germany shares with all of the 30 or so countries that still operate, or have operated nuclear power plants in the past: Radioactive waste is to be disposed of underground. But where exactly? For a long time, Gorleben, located in the Wendland region of Lower Saxony, northeastern Germany, was the site most favored by politicians looking for an underground repository for nuclear waste.
But Gorleben became the location of fierce protests against nuclear energy, so politicians decided a few years ago to abandon the site. Now, the search is on throughout Germany, with more than 90 possible sites under consideration. “We can and must assume that the search process in Germany, with the construction of a final repository, will take approximately as long as we have used nuclear energy, namely 60 years,” König said.
Meanwhile, the dismantling of Germany’s 20 or so nuclear power plants that have been built will also take time. That, according to König, is the responsibility of their operators, who estimate it could take between 10 and 15 years.