Monday, April 28, 2014

What a Waste

That politicians manipulate their voters is a platitude. In order to be re-elected even if they do not tell straight lies they stretch the truth. I still remember the slogan of a German minister of social affairs: Die Rente ist sicher (The old-age pension [run by the government] is sure). Well, that is basically true but now it turns out that future old-age benefits will be so low that many a person will drift into Altersarmut (old-age poverty) following retirement.

In previous blogs Red Baron has dealt with another critical political topic: The disposal of radioactive waste that politicians like to cover by a smoke screen. Recently two small notes in the Badische Zeitung (BZ) reminded me of the still unsolved storage problem although our elected representatives boast: The permanent disposal of radioactive waste must not be left to future generations. In the following discussion it is fair to distinguish between low to medium level and high level radioactive material.

So far I have thought that the former class of radioactive waste had found its future home in an old salt mine named Konrad in Lower Saxony. Now Baden-Württemberg's environmental minister of the Green Party warns that the capacity of 300,000 cubic meters of the mine in northern Germany may not be sufficient to store all containers with low to medium level radioactivity. At the former Nuclear Research Center Karlsruhe alone 13,000 containers wait for their final home. There are many more stored in so-called Zwischenlager at nuclear power reactor sites. These interim storage facilities are authorized for 40 years. Nevertheless, a court in the state of Schleswig-Holstein recently declared radioactive storage at the former reactor site of Brunsbüttel illegal due to deficiencies in the protection against terrorist attacks. Surely security measures are not better at other Zwischenlager.

The situation of radioactive storage will soon become dramatic with the out phasing of eight of Germany's power reactors in the near future. The other bad news is the important delay in the fitout of Mine Konrad that was supposed to start operation this year. Optimists speak of a delay of five years while pessimists aim at a distant 2021. Is it really progress that a state minister has put his finger on this open sore? Red Baron is sure that the smoke screen will soon come down again.

The second note in the BZ concerned our Swiss neighbors and the storage of high level radioactive waste. In the late 1990ies Red Baron observed the research efforts of some Swiss physics colleagues in a lab below the Jura mountains. They were trying to confirm that the geological formation of opalinus clay presents a safe enclosure for the safe storage of high level radioactive waste over extremely long periods. Here I gave my opinion about "safe" storage of waste containing deadly Plutonium.

Since then a special task force started a search for disposal sites in Switzerland. Now I read that the search for a final storage site will not be finished in 2020 but rather delayed until 2027. Such a delay is politically highly welcome with many possible sites located in the High Rhine valley close to the border with Germany. Presently a couple of minor issues mar the German-Swiss relations as the fly-over noise of planes from Zürich Airport and the bank secret with respect to untaxed German money in Switzerland. Apparently politicians consider those issues easier to handle than a proposal for a storage site for highly radioactive material close to the German border.

A presentation of possible storage sites for high level radioactive waste in Switzerland
close to the German border (©Badische Zeitung in 2010)
If everything works out fine and the Swiss people decide positively in a national referendum around the year 2028 the final storage facility will hopefully start operation in Switzerland in 2060. Surely, Red Baron will no longer be concerned.

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