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 May 13, 2013
Task of decommissioning Germany's nuclear plants is Herculean.

 The dismantling of Germany's nuclear power plants will be one of the greatest tasks of the century as the country moves to phase out atomic energy. It will take at least until 2080 to complete the job. But what happens if energy utility companies who own the facilities go bust before the work is done?

When politicians put far too much pathos into their speeches, people should be on their guard -- with a notable exception. There is one issue where no comparison is overinflated and no superlative appears exaggerated: Winfried Kretschmann, for instance -- the governor of the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg and a member of Germany's Green Party -- spoke of "theological timeframes" that now need to be decided upon.

His counterpart from Lower Saxony, Stephan Weil of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), refers to a different time horizon for his actions: the Schöningen Spears, a number of 300,000-year-old Paleolithic hunting weapons that archaeologists found in his home state. And the co-floor leader of the Green Party in the German parliament, Jürgen Trittin, reminded his fellow politicians that this was about "finding a site for the most dangerous waste that mankind has ever produced."

The 'Last Contentious Issue in Peaceful Nuclear Energy'

The issue is nuclear waste and its safe disposal. Germany will have to build a storage facility deep underground that can survive the ravages of wars, revolutions and even another ice age. Indeed, the remains of the nuclear age will have to be kept in a final repository for 1 million years -- longer than the human race has existed.

That is, at least, the aim of the draft legislation that prompted such reverential rhetoric from politicians in the opposition and the government when it was presented last month in Berlin. Under the direction of German Environment Minister Peter Altmaier, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the bill lays out a plan for determining the location of a final repository for the highly radioactive waste from Germany's nuclear power plants. Currently, politicians are still haggling over the details of the proposed law, which Altmaier says will remove "the last contentious issue surrounding the peaceful use of nuclear energy."

What the representatives of the people would rather not talk about, though, is the decommissioning of Germany's nuclear power plants. They were once the cathedrals of industrial progress. But now their cooling towers and domes have become widely visible symbols of human folly.

According to the latest calculations by the German Environment Ministry, the operation and decommissioning of the country's reactors will produce 173,442 cubic meters (over 6.1 million cubic feet) of low to medium-level radioactive waste that has to be stored underground. On top of that, there are 107,430 cubic meters of radioactive detritus from government institutions.

It's a monumental task that the Germans won't complete until 2080 "at the earliest," says nuclear expert Michael Sailer from the Öko-Institut, a non-profit research and consulting association for sustainable technology in Berlin. "After all, these are conservative estimates without any leeway for setbacks."

No Smooth Sailing

But it doesn't look as if things will go smoothly. On the contrary, the phasing out of nuclear power is accompanied by the agonizing challenge of decommissioning existing reactors: Eight nuclear power plants that were rapidly taken offline at the behest of the German government in the wake of Japan's Fukushima disaster have to be dismantled concurrently, followed by an additional nine facilities by the end of 2022.

There is still no roadmap for the decommissioning. To make matters worse, critics say that they see initial indications of eroding safety standards for decommissioning licenses as authorities struggle to cope with the mountains of nuclear waste.

Two locations are planned for the final storage. Environment Minister Altmaier's proposed legislation calls for a deep geological repository for highly radioactive waste to be located by the year 2031. For a long time, the salt dome in Gorleben in the western state of Lower Saxony was designated for this purpose, but that controversial plan has been scrapped and the search must now begin anew.

The Konrad mining shaft, an old iron ore mine near the central German town of Salzgitter in the same state, has been selected for storage of low to medium-level radioactive rubble from decommissioned reactors and is currently under development. The startup date recently had to be postponed from 2019 to 2021. In the meantime, the waste is piling up at intermediate storage facilities, for example, in Ahaus in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia and in Greifswald in the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where the radioactive scrap is cut into manageable sizes that are suitable for storage. The mountain of radioactive waste has already grown to an impressive 100,000 cubic meters.

Since the storage situation is becoming more precarious, operators are trying to have their old facilities carted off in increasingly larger sections. For instance, in the southern German town of Obrigheim and the northern German town of Stade, massive steam generators from the reactors have been removed in one piece. Due to a lack of space, some of these huge components have even been shipped to Sweden.

More Waste than Germany Can Store?

As if there weren't already enough outstanding problems, a new type of nuclear waste has emerged for which there is still no final destination: graphite waste and depleted uranium that can't be sent to the Konrad mining shaft.

Instead, these materials that have been thoroughly contaminated with radionuclides will most likely have to be buried in a future final repository for highly radioactive waste. Germany's Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) estimates that there are up to 105,500 cubic meters of such waste. Until now, awareness of this problem has been largely limited to nuclear experts.

This could have unpleasant consequences for Germany. "In the worst case scenario, there won't be enough space for this type of highly radioactive waste in the storage facility," warns independent nuclear expert Wolfgang Neumann of Hanover. "Then we'll have to look for a third final repository," he concludes. The German Environment Ministry is also keeping this option open, although officially only two sites are planned.

Germany's four main energy companies apparently see no problem, though, in the decommissioning of nuclear power plants, at least that's the conclusion drawn by a reference study that they commissioned from an engineering company called NIS-Ingenieursgesellschaft. Until recently, the results of this study have been kept under wraps by the German Environment Ministry. Following a number of insistent requests by Green Party parliamentarian Sylvia Kotting-Uhl, she finally received a copy of the report in which the experts play down the problem. The "decommissioning of Germany's light-water reactors" is "assured," they wrote, adding that the impact on people and the environment is "negligible."

The engineers see the decommissioning timetable as a simple enough matter, at least in theory. First, the fuel rods have to cool off during what is known as the post-operational phase. Then there are two possibilities: Either decommissioning begins immediately or the reactor is mothballed. "Safe containment" is the name of the process by which the remainder of the reactor is left standing for up to 30 years until the radiation inside the building is further reduced.

A Business Model Erodes

But critics of Germany's nuclear industry are pushing for a quicker solution. They fear that the operating utility companies may be bankrupt before the power plants have been dismantled. Their concerns are not unfounded. After all, Germany's Energiewende -- Germany's plan to phase out nuclear energy and massively increase its reliance on renewable sources -- is eroding the business model of the former electricity monopolists. At the same time, energy giants such as E.on have billions in debts. Industry insiders estimate that it will cost roughly €1 billion ($1.3 billion) to decommission a single nuclear reactor.

To avoid leaving it up to the state to absorb these costs, the owners of nuclear power plants are bound by law to put aside money in their annual budgets for the decommissioning phase. There is currently roughly €30 billion earmarked for this purpose. But critics note that these provisions only stand on paper. "If the company goes broke, the billions for decommissioning are also gone," warns Green Party parliamentarian Kotting-Uhl.

The likelihood of this happening has increased with the reactors owned by Sweden's Vattenfall company in Krümmel and Brunsbüttel, near Hamburg. The Swedish state-owned company has transferred the risk to its German subsidiary.

Consequently, Kotting-Uhl is calling for a national decommissioning fund for nuclear power plants and legislation requiring companies to pay into it. Models for such an initiative can be found in Switzerland and Sweden. But Environment Minister Altmaier rejects the notion. He fears that the companies could use this to buy their way out of their responsibilities. If the decommissioning turns out to be more expensive than planned, the state could be forced to pick up the tab for the difference. Regulations on insolvency insurance could help, but there's not enough time to introduce them before the German general elections in September 2013.

In addition to financial worries, officials in Germany are very concerned about the issue of which engineers and nuclear physicists will ultimately be responsible for moving the waste to its final underground destination. "Ever since the 1990s, we have observed a rapidly declining number of students" in this area, complains the head of Germany's Federal Office for Radiation Protection, Wolfram König.

"The German federal government and the states have to turn around this trend," he says, and promptly makes a promise: "Anyone who starts studying can count on having a job until they retire."