German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel did not beat around the bush. The dumping site in the Asse mountain range in northern Germany is "the most problematic nuclear facility in all of Europe," he said last week, after a report drawn up by Lower Saxony's Environment Ministry highlighted the rapidly deteriorating security at a site that holds some 125,000 rusty barrels of nuclear waste.
According to the report, the site's operator, the Helmholtz Center, a Munich-based research organization, for years has dumped radioactive waste into the site, neglecting its deteriorating security. Over the past decades, some 3,170 gallons of salty base have been flushing into the site each day, and barrels with waste have leaked, adding to the problem.
Engineers predict that Asse, a former salt mine, will endure no more than seven years before it could collapse. Asse already has "as many holes as Swiss cheese," Gabriel told the German mass-selling daily newspaper Bild.
In Germany, where opposition to nuclear energy is strong, the blame game is now in full swing. Gabriel has blamed the Helmholtz Center and Lower Saxony's state mining office for not adhering "to the required regulations for radioactive protection."
The violations surrounding Asse are so outrageous that state prosecutors in the city of Braunschweig have decided to launch a criminal investigation into the matter.
At an emergency meeting on Sept. 4, German ministers agreed that the Asse storage facility will now be run by Germany's Federal Office for Radioactive Protection, or BfS, where the country's leading nuclear experts work. They also decided that the site will now be treated according to nuclear laws and not mining laws, meaning that the nuclear waste dumped there in the 1960s and 1970s -- some 100 tons of uranium and 12 tons of plutonium -- must be safe underground for the next 100,000 years. Some scenarios for Asse include the removal of all the waste, which would be very costly and quite challenging, experts say.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has since tried to appease the public outrage that has gripped Germany, the only major world economy that has decided to phase out nuclear energy. With the BfS taking over, the Asse issue could be handled, she promised in a Sunday radio interview.
Yet the general problem remains unsolved: For years, Germany has tried to find a suitable solution how to permanently store nuclear waste and spent-fuel elements. Asse was a testing site for temporary storage, but officials there apparently didn't think the waste dumped there would ever see the light of day again.
For decades, Germany and energy companies have researched a potential permanent site for highly radioactive waste at Gorleben, also in Lower Saxony, but progress has been stalled because of political differences and public protests surrounding nuclear waste dumping.
Because of the massive public protests, the German government in 2000 stopped the research altogether. Merkel, worried that the Asse incident will further discredit nuclear energy in Germany, has urged Gabriel to resume work in Gorleben. Merkel's conservatives would love to show the public some progress on the storage front.
Gabriel, a center-left Social Democrat, wants to evaluate additional, potentially more promising locations, a plan disliked by the chancellor, because most of the alternative candidates are located in states dominated by her conservatives, and because experts say it could cost an additional $1.5 billion.
The Social Democrats and the conservatives have long quarreled over the nuclear phase-out; Merkel would like to see the running times of atomic power plants extended, while Gabriel wants to hold on to the plan to shut down all remaining plants by 2021.
The Asse scandal means trouble for Merkel, as it brings to the forefront the fact that there exists no good solution for permanent nuclear waste storage to date; at the same time, Asse also brings with it the chance that politicians in Germany will finally stop turning a blind eye to the nuclear waste problem.