A worker stands inside a salt-lined chamber at the Asse II underground nuclear dump in June 2009.
Between 1967 and 1978, workers stored 126,000 barrels of radioactive waste—90 percent of it from nuclear power plants—inside the former salt mine. (See “Nuclear Power’s Comeback” in National Geographic magazine.)
German authorities now want to remove the highly toxic material due to leakage caused by rock movements that threaten to destroy the geological barrier above the sealed storage chambers, which lie as deep as 2,460 feet (750 meters) below the central German countryside.
A fisheye view of Asse II’s interior shows a stack loader pushing barrels of waste over an embankment in the 1970s, when waste from nuclear energy plants was still being deposited at the site.
The low- and medium-level radioactive material includes toxic uranium, rhodium, and plutonium. Due to poor record-keeping, though, no one knows exactly what’s in many of the barrels or what health hazards removal teams might face, Nording said. (Read“‘Nuclear Archaeologists’ Find World War II Plutonium.”)
“It might be too dangerous for workers in the mine to get out that waste,” he added. “We have to find out if it’s possible or not.”
Deep in an abandoned German salt mine, barrels of nuclear waste lie in a jumbled heap—untouched since the 1970s, when this picture was taken.
Since the 1960s the Asse II chambers in Lower Saxony (map) have served as storage sites for more than a hundred thousand barrels of low- to medium-level nuclear waste. Low-level waste isn’t considered dangerous to handle, but medium-level waste may need shielding before disposal—such as encasing reactor components in concrete—according to the World Nuclear Association, which promotes nuclear energy.
In 2008 reports emerged that water leaking from Asse II since the 1980s is radioactive.
Now, amid fears the mine could fill with water—causing radioactive contamination in the region—authorities with Germany’s Federal Office for Radiation Protection are making an unprecedented attempt to retrieve and relocate hundreds of tons of waste from the controversial site.
“What we have to do now is find out if it’s possible to remove the waste,” said agency spokesperson Werner Nording. “This work has never been done anywhere in the world up until now.”
Assuming all goes well—and after tests for radiation, toxicity, and explosive gases—the agency plans to remove the deadly waste with remotely operated vehicles by 2020.
Above the Dump
Rising from the central German countryside, part of an old mining apparatus marks the site of the Asse II nuclear-waste dump, as seen in a picture taken in June 2008.
The government bought the salt mine—which had been abandoned due to unprofitability—on the cheap in the 1960s as an experimental waste-storage solution for Germany’s growing nuclear energy program.
Now the mine is unstable and filling with water, prompting efforts to remove the waste and find another storage site before Asse II collapses.