GORLEBEN, Germany, Aug. 26 (UPI) -- Germany's only storage test facility for high-level nuclear waste, into which Berlin has invested nearly $2 billion over the past years, is unsafe and needs to be closed, experts say.
German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel, a known opponent of nuclear energy, said Wednesday that the salt dome Gorleben, chosen in the 1970s to become Germany's national storage facility for high-level nuclear waste by 2030, "is dead."
The comments came a day after it emerged that the former government of Chancellor Helmut Kohl had brushed over legal and safety concerns related to the site. The Kohl government altered a scientists' report that came to the conclusion that the dome in Lower Saxony was not suitable for long-term storage of nuclear waste, the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper reports.
"Under those circumstances, research (at Gorleben) can't be continued," Gabriel said.
Germany's Federal Office for Radiation Protection backed the minister. "Gorleben has many birth defects that are not compatible with today's open and transparent policies and is therefore controversial," a spokesman of the office told the Frankfurter Rundschau.
For decades, Germany and energy companies have researched Gorleben, but during recent years 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 researching Gorleben. Experts have criticized the lack of progress when it comes to looking for a permanent nuclear waste storage site.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives want to continue pursuing Gorleben, while Gabriel's Social Democrats are in favor of looking for additional, potentially more promising locations.
The conservatives dislike that plan because most of the alternative candidates are located in states dominated by party colleagues, and because experts say it could cost an additional $1.5 billion.
To understand the controversy that surrounds Gorleben, one has to go back to 1973, when the search for a permanent storage site began. The government identified three promising sites, all in Lower Saxony. Gorleben was not among them. After opposition from state officials the government let Lower Saxony choose its own site. It eventually chose Gorleben, located in a scarcely populated area bordering former East Germany that the state wanted to boost economically.
Germany has agreed to phase out nuclear power by 2021. The country's reactors have accumulated some 12,500 tons of highly radioactive waste items such as spent fuel rods. They heat up greatly and radiate for millions of years.