Race to stop radioactive release

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22/11/2000 09:03 - (SA) Race to stop radioactive release

Morsleben, Germany - The roof of Germany's only waste dump for low and medium-level radioactive material could collapse at any moment, releasing radioactive material into the atmosphere of the eastern German countryside.

The prospect of this nightmare scenario has jolted authorities in Germany into action after years of inactivity and a costly operation has swung into action to prevent the worst from happening.

According to the experts who examined the unstable former salt mine at Morsleben in the eastern German State of Saxony-Anhalt, disaster may be only a few hours away. If chunks of the roof were to fall on the casks of waste stored here they could puncture, releasing radioactive dust into the atmosphere via the air conditioning system.

Workers have started filling up the storage rooms at the mine with quantities of salt in an operation that is expected to last six months before the danger of a roof collapse can be ruled out.

The grave nature of the situation 350m under the ground can be gauged by the swift action by the Federal Ministry for Radiation Protection (BfS) under whose aegis the nuclear waste dump is operated.

Authority president Wolfram Koenig said the endangered storage facilities at the mine, where 10 000 cubic metres of nuclear waste lie must be filled "without delay". At the same time assuring critics that even in the event of what he called "a Worst-Case Scenario", the safety of the public would not be endangered.

The Morsleben dump, which was approved in the days of the now defunct communist East Germany, has been a bone of contention for many years.

Environmental activists from Greenpeace and BUND have been saying for a long time that the salt workings on the border with Lower Saxony are not safe enough to store potentially dangerous nuclear waste and that no one can estimate the long-term effects of doing so.

The eco-warriors managed to get a court injunction in 1998 forbidding the storage the nuclear waste at Morsleben and since then no new casks have been placed there.

Opponents of the nuclear waste dump and German Environment Minister Jurgen Trittin point the finger of blame at the former Christian Democrat conservative government under Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Former Environment Ministers Klaus Toepfer and Angela Merkel come in for particular criticism. "Allowing this storage depot to remain open was simply irresponsible," said Trittin.

Merkel managed to push through measures to allow storage at Morsleben against the wishes of Saxony-Anhalt state. The last government extended permission for the dump until 2005 although it had been planned to close down the facility in 2000.

Back then a panel of judges said Morsleben was safe, now the Social Democrat-Greens government has overturned the judgement.

Trittin is now adamant that Morsleben's days are numbered but like Koenig he realises it cannot be shut down overnight. "We'll have to await the outcome of a planning inquiry into the closure," said Koenig.

Filling in the old salt mine workings completely is a gigantic undertaking. An estimated 37 000 cubic metres of nuclear waste are stored there and a staggering 10 million tons of in-fill material would be needed to seal the old mine. The cost to taxpayers has been estimated at several billion marks. - Sapa-DPA


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), November 22, 2000

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