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Alliance News

Resistance grows against German nuclear waste transport to US

Wed, 9th Jul 2014 06:57

Berlin/Washington (Alliance News) - Elected officials and anti-nuclear activists on both sides of the Atlantic are raising alarm against a US-German proposal to ship nearly 1 ton of German nuclear waste to the southern US state of South Carolina.

Critics accuse Washington and Berlin of practicing secrecy and deception to sell the deal by claiming the waste was from research reactors, not commercial plants. They allege that Germany's nuclear waste could even produce weapons-grade material for the US.

"I can no longer accept the blanket of secrecy that (Germany's) Federal Ministry of Research has thrown over this affair," Silvia Kotting-Uhl, spokeswoman for nuclear affairs in the Greens parliamentary faction, told dpa Tuesday.

At issue is whether the Savannah River Site, an 800-square-kilometre facility operated by the US Energy Department, can accept what US officials say would be 900,000 tennis ball-sized, graphite pebbles of spent nuclear fuel from Germany's interim waste storage facilities at Juelich, near Aachen, and Ahaus, near the Dutch border.

Nuclear oversight authorities in the German state of North Rhein-Westphalia, home to both sites, ruled last week that Juelich may no longer store its 288,000 pebbles of radioactive material because the facility is not earthquake-proof.

The remaining some 600,000 pebbles are stored at Ahaus, US activists said.

In April, US and German officials signed a notice of intent that proposes that the US will both process and dispose of Germany's used fuel.

Since December 2012, the German government has paid 10 million dollars to the Savannah River National Laboratory to develop technology to separate weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium (HEU) from the graphite, according to Julie Petersen, a public affairs staffer at the Savannah River Site.

Another German payment of 450 million dollars to cover processing and disposal of the fuel is expected later, German news magazine Spiegel reported.

"We do not want foreign nuclear waste dumped in South Carolina, when the best way forward is for Germany to follow its own law that requires domestic disposal," Tom Clements, an environmental scientist who leads the Savannah River Site Watch group, told dpa. "Germany's confused if it thinks we're a nuclear disposition site."

The South Carolina site - just 32 kilometres from historic Augusta, Georgia, home of the Masters Golf Tournament - already stores 140 million litres of highly radioactive and toxic waste in aging tanks. A permanent, deep underground storage site for nuclear waste in the desert state of Nevada has been bogged down in politics for decades.

Built during the 1950s to produce nuclear weapons material - tons of still usable weapons material is stored onsite - the Savannah River Site now also works on projects such as converting weapons-grade material back into fuel for nuclear power reactors and getting the most use out of nuclear waste.

The environmental organization Greenpeace warned that export plans would violate Germany's nuclear laws and present high risks during transport.

"The order (by North Rhein-Westphalia) to vacate the interim site is an illegal attempt to evade responsibility for nuclear waste produced in Germany," Greenpeace nuclear expert Heinz Smital said.

Germany forbids the export and the US forbids the import of waste from commercial reactors. Greenpeace, along with US activists, note that even the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) calls the Juelich facility "a commercial reactor and not a research reactor."

Under the US Atoms for Peace programme of the 1950s, the US sent nuclear material abroad for research and agreed to take it back. From 1963 to 1989, more than 12,000 spent fuel elements were returned from abroad, according to an IAEA report.

US and German officials insist the two reactors where the waste was produced - Arbeitsgemeinschaft Versuchsreaktor (AVR) in Juelich and the Thorium High Temperature Reactor (THTR)-300 in Ahaus - were research reactors.

Clements says there is evidence they were commercial reactors that sold electricity into the grid.

Both reactors were experimental, high-temperature pebble bed reactors, a type no longer used in the industry.

The US environmental assessment will likely be finished by year's end, and if it comes up negative, US officials say they would conduct a full environmental impact study.

German officials say the deal would be justified under the non-proliferation efforts of the US, which in 2010 launched the Nuclear Security Summits to secure dangerous weapons-grade material from terrorists.

Clements noted that the HEU would be safer imbedded in its graphite balls than once released.

The Savannah River facility is not under the control of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, nor monitored by the IAEA, and only the US Energy Department has oversight.

"No one will monitor if the material (freed from graphite balls) is diverted to nuclear weapons," Clements said.

In South Carolina, state Senator Vincent Sheehen, a Democratic candidate for governor, summed up the fears of some South Carolinians.

"We'll all be dead," he quipped, "and those radioactive German spheres will still be here."

Copyright dpa

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