Disposal of radioactive waste

July 2017

The advantages of reliable and clean energy generation through nuclear fission are offset by the challenge of safe final storage of the radioactive end products. In Germany, the exploration, construction and operation of repositories are the responsibility of the state. The costs of disposal are borne by the waste producers. In the case of nuclear power plants, this is done by paying the funds earmarked for this purpose plus a risk premium of 35 per cent into the "Fund for the Financing of Nuclear Waste Disposal", which was established as a foundation under public law with the Waste Disposal Fund Act. The total amount transferred to the Nuclear Waste Management Fund at the beginning of July 2017 is around 24.1 billion euros. In future, the costs of interim and final storage, including site selection, will be borne from the fund's resources, which it manages itself.

Like the majority of vitrified waste from reprocessing, the spent fuel elements produced during electricity generation in nuclear power plants are classified as highly radioactive materials. They make up around 10 per cent of the waste volume, but contain more than 99 per cent of the total radioactive inventory.

Over 90 per cent of the volume of radioactive waste produced in Germany is low-level and intermediate-level radioactive waste. Around two thirds of this waste comes from the operation and dismantling of nuclear power plants and from the nuclear industry, for example used protective clothing, filters, tools or disused plant components. The remainder comes from research, industrial processes and the medical use of radionuclides.

In addition, the National waste management programme of the Federal Government (NaPro), two further categories of possible waste are mentioned as a precautionary measure, which have a special status, as it is not certain whether they will actually be produced as waste. The first is depleted uranium, which is produced during uranium enrichment in Gronau. This low-level radioactive material is a recyclable material and can be stored in a chemically stable form without causing any harm. As a recyclable material, it can be returned to the enrichment process to produce further uranium 235, and the main component, uranium 238, can be used in future reactor generations, possibly outside Germany, to generate electricity.

The other category comprises the radioactive waste that is to be retrieved from the Asse II mine. The retrieval was legally prepared with the "Act to Accelerate the Retrieval of Radioactive Waste and the Decommissioning of the Asse II Mine" of April 2013 and has since been organised by the operators BfS/Asse GmbH and now under the umbrella of the Federal Company for Final Disposal (BGE) prepared. However, as the retrieval process is complex and time-consuming and involves considerable risks due to the mining situation in the Asse, it cannot be assumed with certainty that the waste will actually be retrieved. The Konrad repository is not intended for these two types of potential radioactive waste.

Finally, a further category of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste could also have to be disposed of, which is not suitable for emplacement in the Konrad repository due to the time of its generation or due to special nuclide compositions and/or its chemical composition. It is not yet possible to predict whether such waste will be produced at all.

Certain geological properties are necessary for the long-term safe storage of waste. There is an international consensus that high-level radioactive waste should be stored in deep geological formations in order to isolate it permanently. This disposal path is also being pursued in Germany. Possible host rocks are salt, clay or granite. The search takes place at depths of at least 300 metres below ground level. The aim of deep geological disposal is to rule out harmful effects on humans and the environment for long periods of time. In addition, seismic and geological conditions as well as the insulation capacity of the rock must be right. Germany has also decided to store low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste deep underground.

July 2017

Interim storage - an important link in the chain

Nuclear power generation, industrial processes, research and medicine generate radioactive waste that is stored in interim storage facilities until final repositories are established. In terms of the type of waste, a distinction is made between highly radioactive material with heat generation - such as spent fuel elements from nuclear power generation - and medium or low-level radioactive waste with negligible heat generation.

Radioactive waste is stored in various interim storage facilities in Germany: in addition to the three central facilities in Gorleben, Ahaus and Lubmin, there are twelve storage facilities at the nuclear power plant sites and eleven interim storage facilities operated by industry and research institutions. In addition, there are twelve state collection centres, which mainly accept waste from medicine, industry and research. The interim storage of radioactive waste in Germany is an important link in the disposal chain until it is transferred to the Konrad repository for low and intermediate-level radioactive waste, which will be ready for operation in the 1920s, and until a repository for high-level radioactive waste becomes available. Until all casks containing radioactive material can be transferred to their final repository, they will be stored safely in the interim storage facilities. With the container concepts and the structural measures at the respective sites, Germany not only fulfils international standards for the protection of people and the environment, but is also a pioneer in safety technology in many areas.


The handling of radioactive material is fundamentally regulated by the Radiation Protection Act (StrlSchG) and the Atomic Energy Act (AtG). These regulate the principles and requirements for precautionary and protective measures that apply to the use and exposure to radioactive substances and ionising radiation of civilisational and natural origin. The disposal of radioactive waste is regulated by law. In the case of interim storage of radioactive waste, the interim storage facilities, the containers and the storage must be authorised separately by the relevant competent authority.

Type of waste

A distinction is made between two types of radioactive waste. On the one hand, there is the highly radioactive heat-generating waste, which includes the fuel elements from the reactors. This accounts for around ten per cent of the volume of nuclear waste produced, but contains 99 per cent of the total radioactivity.

The remaining 90 per cent of nuclear waste is low and intermediate-level radioactive. It is produced, for example, during work in nuclear power plants - such as protective clothing, tools or filters - or during their dismantling. Medicine, research and industry also use so-called radionuclides, which must be disposed of properly as radioactive waste after use.

Storage of waste

The first stop on the disposal route for spent fuel elements is storage in the spent fuel pool in the reactor building. They are stored in the water-filled pool until their radioactivity and heat production have decayed to such an extent that they can be transferred to transport and storage containers and then stored in the interim storage facilities at the nuclear power plant sites.

The casks ensure the safe containment of the radioactive substances. The CASTOR® casks are equipped with a constantly monitored double-lid sealing system to prevent releases.

The containers are designed to withstand even extreme external influences, such as transport accidents, fire or an aircraft crash. They therefore fulfil the high requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) global dangerous goods criteria.

Low-level and intermediate-level radioactive waste is stored in the interim storage facilities in steel drums, MOSAIK® casks and containers, depending on activity and volume, until it is transferred to the Konrad repository.

BGZ Company for interim storage

In connection with the reorganisation of responsibility for nuclear waste management, it was agreed that the central interim storage facilities in Gorleben and Ahaus, the decentralised interim storage facilities for spent fuel elements at the nuclear power plant sites and the waste storage facilities for low- and intermediate-level waste would be taken over and managed by the BGZ. The BGZ, which is wholly owned by the federal government, will then be responsible for the safe storage of the waste until it is transferred to the designated final repositories. On 1 August 2017, BGZ took over the central interim storage facilities in Gorleben and Ahaus, with the on-site interim storage facilities to follow on 1 January 2019 and the waste storage facilities on 1 January 2020. The operators will remain responsible for the proper conditioning of the waste and its provision in the appropriate containers.

Centralised interim storage

The three centralised interim storage facilities in Gorleben (Lower Saxony), Ahaus (North Rhine-Westphalia) and Lubmin (Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania) are used for the interim storage of highly radioactive waste, among other things.

Gorleben interim storage facility

In addition to the much better-known Gorleben salt dome, which was explored as a repository for highly radioactive waste from 1979 to 2000 and from 2010 to 2012 and is currently being kept open for possible consideration in the site selection process, the municipality in Wendland is also home to an interim storage facility for storing spent fuel elements from nuclear power plants and highly radioactive waste from reprocessing. In connection with the Site Selection Act (StandAG), no further reprocessing waste may be delivered to the Gorleben transport cask storage facility. This waste must be transported to interim storage facilities at the nuclear power plant sites. The medium-level radioactive waste from the French reprocessing plant La Hague is to be stored at the Philippsburg site, while the remaining 21 containers with high-level radioactive waste from the British reprocessing plant Sellafield will be divided equally between the interim storage facilities at the Biblis, Brokdorf and Isar sites. The Gorleben waste storage facility is also operated at the site. Waste with negligible heat generation is stored here, mainly from the operation of German nuclear power plants.

Ahaus interim storage facility
The Ahaus interim storage facility is located on the territory of the town of Ahaus in western Münsterland. In addition to spent fuel elements, low and medium-level radioactive waste is also stored in Ahaus. 

Interim storage north near Lubmin
The state interim storage facility North near Lubmin in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania was originally used to store radioactive waste from the decommissioned nuclear power plants of the GDR. Today, fuel elements from nuclear power plants and research facilities as well as the research vessel "Otto Hahn" are stored directly on the site of the former Greifswald nuclear power plant. The Interim Storage Facility North also serves as an emergency storage facility. If, for example, unauthorised nuclear fuel was found during border controls, it would be sent to Lubmin for interim storage. No change of operator is planned for the Interim Storage Facility North; it will continue to be operated by the federally owned Nuclear Waste Management Plant GmbH (EWN) operated.

Decentralised interim storage

 Interim storage facilities at nuclear power plant sites

Since 2005, the transfer of spent fuel elements abroad for reprocessing has been prohibited. At the same time, the nuclear power plant operators were obliged to set up interim storage facilities for fuel elements at the nuclear power plant sites. The operators complied with this obligation following extensive authorisation procedures. In addition to the interim fuel element storage facilities, there are also on-site waste storage facilities at some sites that are intended for planned or ongoing dismantling projects.


The repatriation of German reprocessing waste from the UK and France

After several years of operation, the fuel elements in nuclear power plants have reached the end of their service life and are replaced. Until 2005, the reprocessing of fuel elements was a legally prescribed disposal method, and until 1994 it was even mandatory. The spent fuel elements were transported to France and the UK and reprocessed there. In addition to the reusable nuclear fuel in the fuel elements, reprocessing also produces radioactive waste, which the Federal Republic of Germany is obliged to take back under international law. The safe and reliable transport of the highly radioactive waste in CASTOR® casks to Germany fulfils this obligation.

Several more such transports are scheduled for the coming years. Further and current information can be found here.

Further interim storage facilities and national collection centres
In addition to the facilities of the nuclear industry, research institutions also operate interim storage facilities for radioactive materials from research. The federal states are obliged to set up state collection centres for the low and intermediate-level radioactive waste from medicine, research and industry that accumulates in their territory. There are a total of twelve state collection centres, which are operated either by individual states themselves, in association or by private companies on behalf of the respective state. However, the federal states retain full legal responsibility in all cases.


The protection of people and the environment is the top priority. The interim storage concept therefore aims to ensure the safe containment and retention of radioactive materials as well as the necessary shielding of ionising radiation at all times. The transport and storage containers are a central component. In addition, the design of the storage buildings and their technical facilities ensure safety during interim storage. The safety concept is supplemented by administrative precautions. Interim storage is constantly monitored by the operators in accordance with regulations and checked by the supervisory authorities - safety is therefore guaranteed at all times.

The protection concept also applies in the event of beyond-design-basis events:
As part of a stress test for supply and disposal plants and facilities in Germany, the Disposal Commission (ESK) appointed by the Federal Ministry for the Environment came to this conclusion in its statement of 14 March 2013:
"...The interim storage of irradiated fuel assemblies and heat-generating waste is based on a robust protection concept in which compliance with the basic protection goals during storage in specified normal operation and in the event of incidents is primarily ensured by the thick-walled metallic casks. The design of the containers also ensures that no drastic disaster control measures are required even in the event of beyond-design-basis incidents.

The investigations and assessments carried out by the ESK on the basis of the documents submitted have shown that the interim storage facilities for spent fuel assemblies and heat-generating waste fulfil the highest stress level or achieve the highest degree of protection in almost all load cases..."

Interim storage facilities containing nuclear fuel are also monitored by the European Atomic Energy Community EURATOM and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with regard to non-proliferation, i.e. the non-proliferation of fissile material. The purpose of fissile material monitoring is to ensure that fissile material is not used or misused for military purposes.

Radiation exposure

The following applies to all nuclear facilities: The additional effective radiation dose for the population must not exceed the limit value of 1 millisievert (1 mSv = one thousandth of a sievert) per calendar year, based on the most unfavourable assumptions set out in the Radiation Protection Ordinance.

The average exposure of a person to radiation from all radiation sources in Germany is around 4 millisieverts per year. A distinction is made between natural and civilisation-related radiation exposure. Natural radiation includes cosmic radiation, i.e. high-energy radiation from outer space, and terrestrial radiation, i.e. radiation released by the decay of natural radioactive substances in the earth's crust. Humans also ingest radioactive substances, such as potassium or iodine, with their food and drinking water.

Changes in the environment due to technical developments lead to an increase in natural radiation exposure. In particular, radon in buildings and natural radioactive substances from mining and manufacturing processes can contribute to this. The effective dose of natural radiation is around 2.1 millisieverts per year. People are also exposed to radioactive radiation from medical and technical applications. The effective dose from X-ray diagnostics alone is around 1.8 millisieverts per year.

In comparison, radiation exposure from the operation of nuclear power plants and nuclear facilities in Germany accounts for a significantly lower proportion: less than 0.01 millisieverts per year, i.e. less than 1 % of the limit set by law.

July 2017

Closely linked to the public debate on the utilisation of nuclear energy is the discussion on the topic of final storage. The federal government is responsible for final storage. The majority of the radioactive waste produced in Germany, low and medium-level radioactive waste, will in future be stored in the Konrad repository. The former iron ore mine, which has been authorised as a repository, has been converted for this purpose since 2007. It remains to be seen where the highly radioactive, heat-generating waste (HLW) will be disposed of. It contains around 99 per cent of all radioactivity.

In April 2013, the federal and state governments reached a cross-party agreement to reorganise the repository issue. The "Site Selection Act for a Repository for High-Level Radioactive Waste" (StandAG) provides for a new nationwide search for a suitable repository site for highly radioactive, heat-generating waste (HAW) in a multi-stage process and came into force in July 2013.

As a first step, the law provided for the establishment of a commission to answer fundamental questions and define requirements. On 10 April 2014, the Commission for the Storage of High-Level Radioactive Waste officially appointed by the German Bundestag. The commission was made up of representatives from politics, academia and civil society. On 5 July 2016, the commission handed over its Final report with the recommendation to the Bundestag, Bundesrat and Federal Government of a disposal path for deep geological disposal with the option of reversibility, technical-scientific decision criteria and a comprehensive participation procedure for the search for a repository for highly radioactive waste. The proposals and recommendations contained in the report are summarised in a so-called Formulation aid of the Federal Government which supported the parliamentary groups in the Bundestag in drafting a bill for the further development of the Site Selection Act. The drafting aid was adopted by the Federal Cabinet on 21 December 2016. The "Act on the Further Development of the Act on the Search and Selection of a Site for a Repository for Heat-Generating Radioactive Waste and Other Acts" was finally adopted by the Bundestag on 23 March 2017 and by the Bundesrat on 31 March 2017.

The actual site selection will be carried out by the new Federal Company for Final Disposal mbH as the project sponsor. The approval and supervisory authority is the Federal Office for the Safety of Nuclear Waste Management (BASE). The disposal path provided for in the law is final disposal in deep geological formations in a repository mine constructed for this purpose with the aim of final closure and with reversibility in the form of retrievability of the waste during the operating phase and provision for possible retrievability after closure of the repository mine. However, retrieval or salvage is not intended. Three phases are envisaged for the selection of a site for such a repository for deep geological disposal: 

  • In the first phase, unsuitable areas are to be excluded from the further procedure in accordance with the agreed exclusion criteria and minimum requirements, and possible siting regions for surface exploration are to be identified with the aid of the assessment criteria and representative safety investigations; 
  • In a second phase, following the corresponding legal decision by the Bundestag and Bundesrat, several sites will be explored above ground and, after applying the criteria accordingly, possible sites for underground exploration will be identified; 
  • As a third phase, following a decision by the Bundestag and Bundesrat, sites are to be explored underground and, following a comparison based on comprehensive preliminary safety investigations by the Bundestag and Bundesrat, the final repository site is to be determined. 

Extensive regional and national participation opportunities for the public as well as extensive legal protection options are provided for the entire selection process. The Federal Government's formulation aid follows this system. At federal level, the National Monitoring Body The 18-member National Monitoring Body will oversee the site selection process and, in particular, public participation. The national monitoring body was enshrined in law at the end of July 2016 so that it can also support the legislative and administrative transition phase until the start of the actual site selection process. To this end, half of the members were appointed by the Bundestag and Bundesrat at the end of November 2016.
The regional conferences will be the main body for public participation, which will be created in addition to the traditional forms of participation in the administrative procedure - comment procedures and discussion meetings. They will be set up in every region that is proposed for surface exploration. They will consist of a plenary meeting in which all citizens of the affected area can participate as well as a group of representatives. Additional participation formats will be established in the form of the sub-area conference for the first phase of the procedure and the Council of the Regions conference comprising representatives of the regional conferences.

According to the report of the Repository Commission, site selection is the first stage of final disposal, followed by five further stages: the mining development of the site (including the preliminary licensing procedure), the emplacement of the radioactive waste, the monitoring prior to closure of the repository mine and its closure, and the condition of the closed repository mine.

The previous Gorleben exploration mine will be given equal consideration in the new selection process. Transports of waste from reprocessing to the Gorleben interim storage facility will no longer take place and will be distributed to the Biblis, Brokdorf, Isar and Philippsburg sites in accordance with the BMUB's concept, as agreed by the Federal Environment Ministry and the Bavarian state government.

Radioactive waste is produced during the utilisation of nuclear technology: during the operation and decommissioning of nuclear power plants, in various branches of industry, in research and in medical applications. In Germany, these residual materials are categorised as high-level radioactive heat-generating waste on the one hand and low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste with negligible heat generation on the other.

Low and intermediate-level radioactive waste accounts for around 90 per cent of the volume of radioactive waste. This includes, for example, contaminated plant components, tools or laboratory equipment, protective clothing from nuclear power plants, used filters, radiation sources from medicine and other technical applications or radioactive chemicals.

High-level radioactive waste primarily includes spent fuel elements that are produced during electricity generation in nuclear power plants and research reactors, as well as waste from the reprocessing of spent fuel elements. Their share of the total volume is around 10 per cent, but they contain over 99 per cent of the total radioactivity. The low and medium-level radioactive waste in Germany is to be stored in the Konrad repository. The Federal Ministry for the Environment (BMUB) forecasts a volume of just over 300,000 m³ for this waste by 2080. This does not include a possible future volume of waste from the retrieval and conditioning of waste from Asse II.

International comparison

In a global comparison, only a few countries such as Germany have decided to also dispose of low and intermediate-level radioactive waste in deep geological repositories, while other countries have decided to store such waste close to the surface. Repositories for low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste have already been in operation in some countries for many years.


Status of the programme

Underground laboratories

Candidates for repository sites



Investigation of Rupelton formation in Boom with HADES laboratory for suitability for all types of radioactive waste; decision proposal submitted by the Belgian operator to the government in 2015 was rejected in 2017; further procedure open; extensive public consultations to take place





Site search since 1986; initially only exploration in the Beishan region, since 2012 expansion to 12 exploration areas; narrowing down to three sites for preliminary safety investigations, then site decision; exploration scheduled for around 10 years, then further steps

Xinchang site, Beishan region in Gansu province selected; host rock granite, exploration and preparation for construction

5 candidates in Beishan region, Gansu province and Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia regions

Granite /clay


Site approved by government and parliament; approval procedure from the end of 2012, positive safety assessment by supervisory authority STUK; construction licence granted in November 2015, commissioning planned in 2020s

Onkalo (Olkiluoto)

Olkiluoto (site under construction)



Reference concept is a deep geological repository with retrievability; preparation of the Cigéo project since 2011; legal basis for the construction of the Cigéo project adopted on 11 July 2016; application for approval expected in 2019, approval expected in 2022; operation targeted from 2035 onwards

Bure (Lorraine)

Bure (location determined)


Great Britain (England and Wales)

Decision in principle in 2006 for deep geological disposal of high-level and intermediate-level waste; site selection procedure cancelled (2013); new search and dialogue process with municipalities and stakeholders since 2014; public hearing on geological data collection held in 2016, on deep geological disposal in 2018




Two underground laboratories in operation; site identification in three phases, application or publication of a map of potential siting regions, selection of sites to be explored, exploration of sites; no applications to date; a map with siting regions was published in July 2017 as the basis for a dialogue process; applications still possible

Mizunami (on Honshu), Horonobe (on Hokkaido)


Crystalline rock/sedimentary rock


Concept demonstration in the "Whiteshell Underground Research Laboratory"; expression of interest procedure; 5 sites are still in the selection process, one has withdrawn, 15 sites have been excluded

Lac du Bonnet, Manitoba (closed in 2010)

Hornepayne and Area, Huron-Kinloss, Ignace and Area, Manitouwadge and Area, South Bruce



Underground laboratory in granite in preparation; evaluation of the results and decision on how to proceed by 2028

Zheleznogorsk (near Krasnoyarsk)




Östhammar site near Forsmark decided in 2009; approval procedure since 2011, positive recommendation by nuclear supervisory authority in 2018; at the same time, request for further information on the long-term safety of the copper containers by the District Court for Land and Environment; construction expected to start in 2020s.

Stripa (until 1992) HRL Äspö




Technical feasibility of a repository confirmed by the government in 2006; three siting regions with Opalinus Clay in north-east Switzerland shortlisted

Grimsel (canton of Bern/granite), Mont Terri (canton of Jura/clay)

Originally 6 siting regions (HLW and LLW/ILW) in the selection procedure, 3 proposed for further investigation for HAW in stage 3:

Opalinus Clay


Examination of possible geological formations completed; in the medium term only monitoring of activities abroad




Yucca Mountain site approved by the President and Congress in 2002; in 2008, the Department of Energy (DOE) submitted a licence application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which it withdrew in 2010; the licensing process, which had been suspended since 2010, was resumed by the NRC following a court ruling in 2013; in January 2015, the NRC completed its safety report on the repository project; in May 2016, the supplementary final report on environmental impact was published; the hearings in the NRC's decision-making process on the construction licence remain suspended

Yucca Mountain (Nevada)

Yucca Mountain

Tufa (Yucca Mountain)

HLW: High Level Waste (highly radioactive waste)

ILW: Intermediate Level Waste (intermediate-level radioactive waste)

LLW: Low Level Waste (low-level radioactive waste)

The operators of nuclear power plants and other nuclear facilities are legally obliged to cover the costs of the decommissioning and dismantling of their plants and those of the Conditioning and provision of radioactive waste from operation and decommissioning. These costs are incurred to a lesser extent during operation and to a greater extent after decommissioning over a period of around 20 years. The operators of nuclear power plants in Germany have recognised provisions of more than 20 billion euros in their balance sheets for these obligations.

Provisions in this and other areas are recognised for future payment obligations that are uncertain in terms of amount or due date. The legal basis for provisions in the nuclear energy sector is the Atomic Energy Act, which obliges the operators to assume these future costs, and commercial law, according to which such foreseeable payment obligations must be recognised in the balance sheet.

Specifically, the obligations of nuclear power plant operators in this area include the decommissioning and dismantling of nuclear power plants, the packaging of irradiated fuel elements and radioactive waste from reprocessing as well as the conditioning and packaging of other radioactive waste, including operational waste, and the return of radioactive waste from reprocessing.

Contributions to the final disposal of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste




Status of the programme


Dessel, Province of Antwerp

near the surface (waste with a short service life up to T1/2 = 30 years)

in preparation


New site search based on deep geological disposal decided after cancellation of the previous procedure

geological, up to 500 metres deep

In May 2018, Parliament unanimously approved the government's proposal to extend interim storage in Risø and to prepare the siting and implementation of a deep geological repository. It should be operational by 2073 at the latest.


Olkiluoto, Eurajoki municipality

Cavern (granite)

in operation

Satakunta Loviisa, Uusimaa

Cavern (granite)

in operation


La Manche near La Hague (LLW/ILW up to 30 years T1/2)

close to the surface


L'Aube near Soulaines-Dhuys (LLW/ILW up to 30 years T1/2)

close to the surface

in operation

L'Aube near La Chaise (LLW)

close to the surface

in operation

Great Britain

Drigg, County of Cumbria (England) (LLW)

close to the surface

in operation

Dounreay, County Caithness (Scotland) (LLW)

close to the surface

in operation


Rokkasho Mura, Aomori Prefecture (LLW, partly ILW)

close to the surface

in operation


Kincardine, Ontario

geological (limestone)

in the authorisation procedure


Forsmark (SFR), Östhammar municipality (LLW/ILW, short-lived)

Cavern (granite)

in operation

SFL (LLW/ILW, durable)

Concept not yet determined; inclusion of granite in different variants under consideration

Target dates for start of construction and commissioning: 2035 and 2045 respectively


El Cabril, Andalusia (LLW/ILW up to 30 years T1/2)

close to the surface

in operation


7 Facilities

close to the surface

in operation

On-Site Waste Disposal Facility (OSWDF), Portsmouth Ohio

close to the surface


"Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) for waste from nuclear weapons programmes near Carlsbad, New Mexico

geological (rock salt)

in operation

ILW: Intermediate Level Waste (intermediate-level radioactive waste)

LLW: Low Level Waste (low-level radioactive waste)

T1/2: Half-life

February 2019

Following its construction, the already authorised Konrad repository near Salzgitter will be available for the storage of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste. The former iron ore mine has been authorised as a repository for waste of this type up to a volume of 303,000 m³. A final planning approval decision has been in place since April 2007.

Konrad is currently being developed into a final storage facility and is scheduled for completion in 2027. In addition to work to construct the above-ground infrastructure, such as the construction of roads and railway connections as well as the facilities for handling and testing the waste packages to be stored, the two shafts are being refurbished and converted. Underground, the infrastructure, transport routes and a special ventilation system for the storage operation are being created, storage chambers are being excavated and extended and the shafts are being converted. Responsibility for these conversion measures was transferred from the BfS and DBE to the Federal Company for Final Disposal mbh (BGE) under the supervision of the Federal Office for the Safety of Nuclear Waste Management (BfE). To date, costs totalling around 2.2 billion euros have been incurred for the Konrad repository. These costs were borne proportionately by the waste producers. Current and future costs will be borne by the state waste disposal fund, into which the operators of the nuclear power plants have already paid their share, and will continue to be borne proportionately by the other waste producers.

The iron ore-bearing formation at the site was formed around 135 to 140 million years ago. At a depth of between 800 and 1,300 metres, iron ore-bearing rock layers with a width of 8 to 15 km form the host rock for the waste to be stored in the future. Above these layers are layers of impermeable clay approximately 400 metres thick, followed by a thick layer of marl and limestone. These layers form the decisive geological barrier and isolate the radioactive waste from the groundwater and the biosphere in the long term. The geoscientific long-term safety forecasts are based on a period of at least 100,000 years. The results of the long-term safety analysis show that the maximum possible radiological exposure for people is well below the internationally recognised standard required by the planning approval authority. There is therefore no reason to fear any adverse effects for humans or the environment from the release of radionuclides.

Until Konrad is commissioned, low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste with negligible heat generation will be stored in state collection centres of the federal states, in research facilities, at the sites of nuclear power plants or other nuclear sites and in central interim storage facilities. The waste must be conditioned there according to its type and radioactive inventory, i.e. processed, packaged in suitable containers and documented so that it fulfils the acceptance conditions of the Konrad repository and can be delivered there safely in accordance with the regulations for the transport of hazardous goods. With the reorganisation of responsibility for nuclear waste management, operational responsibility for the interim storage of low- and intermediate-level waste from nuclear power plants will be transferred to the Federal Company for Interim Storage (BGZ) from 1 January 2020. The waste will thus become the property and responsibility of the federal government. 

The tasks of conditioning and packaging radioactive waste from the nuclear power plants remain with their operators, who carry them out and finance them independently from the provisions recognised for this purpose. The amount of the provisions required for dismantling and conditioning is determined by the operators on the basis of existing contracts and external expert reports and appraisals, certified by independent auditors and audited by the financial authorities. The provisions are reviewed and updated annually.

The operating time of the Konrad repository should not exceed 40 years. During the operating period, the waste will be retrieved from the various interim and waste storage facilities as well as the state collection centres. According to the planning approval decision, storage is to take place immediately after acceptance of the packages, as no separate interim storage facility is planned, only a buffer hall for delivery and inspection of the waste packages. In order to equalise the operational processes, the Waste Management Transition Act of 2017 provides for the possibility of constructing a central staging facility for low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste as an entry storage facility for the Konrad repository.

February 2019

The Morsleben repository for radioactive waste (ERAM) was established by the GDR in the former Bartensleben potash and rock salt mine in Saxony-Anhalt. In 1990, the ERAM was transferred to federal ownership following German reunification. Since then, it has been operated by the BfS, with the DBE managing operations on its behalf. Since 30 July 2016, the Federal Company for Final Disposal (BGE) responsible as the operator.

Between 1981 and 1998, a total of around 37,000 m³ of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste (of which around 14,000 m³ came from nuclear power plants in the old federal states), including around 6,000 sealed radiation sources, was stored. The storage work was suspended in 1998 due to a court order, and in 2001 the BfS finally refrained from accepting any further waste.

The planning approval procedure required for decommissioning has been initiated; the necessary documents were submitted by the BfS to the responsible state authority, the Saxony-Anhalt Ministry of the Environment, between 2005 and 2009 and made available to the public. Public participation took place on nine hearing days in 2011. The decision on the objections and the plan approval decision by the responsible licensing authority, the Ministry for the Environment, Agriculture and Energy of Saxony-Anhalt (MULE), are still pending. Once the planned closure has been approved, the decommissioning work will take another 15 to 20 years.

August 2018

The former salt mine Schachtanalage Asse II in Lower Saxony near Wolfenbüttel served as a federal research mine from 1965 to 1995. Between 1967 and 1978, around 126,000 barrels of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste were stored there. The waste originated from the operation of nuclear facilities and from the use of radioactive substances in industry, research and medicine. Research work was discontinued in 1995 and an application for final closure was submitted in 2007.

Since 1 January 2009, the BfS, as the successor to the Helmholtz Zentrum München, has been responsible for the operation and decommissioning of the facility. One of the main reasons for the change of operator was that the facility was equated with a repository and transferred to the Atomic Energy Act. Since 30 July 2016, the Federal Company for Final Disposal (BGE) has been responsible as the operator.

Three different options were considered for decommissioning the mine: retrieval, relocation within the mine and full backfilling. Retrieval was identified as the preferred option for the further handling of the waste stored there because, according to the current state of knowledge, this option offers the possibility of providing proof of long-term safety. In a letter to the BMU (now BMUB) dated January 2010, the Disposal Commission also recommended that full backfilling of the mine be pursued as an option, as the possibility of retrieval is subject to considerable uncertainty.

With the entry into force of the Lex Asse, the "Act to accelerate the retrieval of radioactive waste and the decommissioning of the Asse II mine", the basis for accelerated retrieval of waste from the mine was created in April 2013. As things stand today, retrieval is expected to begin in 2033. In September 2016, the Radiation Protection Commission (SSK) of the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMUB), in view of the foreseeable long duration of the retrieval project from a radiation protection point of view, issued the following recommendation recommendedThe alternative option of full backfilling should also be considered again in the planning.

Things to know about final disposal

According to the Atomic Energy Act, the federal government is responsible for the final disposal of radioactive waste in Germany. Within the federal government, the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety and its subordinate Federal Office for the Safety of Nuclear Waste Management (BfE) are responsible for determining the location, planning, facility-related research and development, exploration and construction, operation and decommissioning of repositories for radioactive waste. This Federal Office was established on 1 September 2014 and, in accordance with the recommendations of the "Commission on the Storage of High-Level Radioactive Waste" in the Act of 30 July 2016, was given its function as a licensing and supervisory authority for nuclear waste disposal. The Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology is responsible for the nuclear energy industry and basic research. Subordinate to it is the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources, which deals with key geoscientific issues.

The disposal of radioactive waste consists not only of final storage, but also includes a whole chain of processes, at the end of which the final disposal should be a deep geological repository. The quantities of radioactive waste produced must be minimised and the waste must be conditioned for interim storage, transport and, as far as possible, final disposal. Conditioning means that the waste is put into a prescribed state and packaged so that the protection of people and the environment is guaranteed. At present, radioactive waste is stored temporarily in waste storage facilities, interim storage facilities or state collection centres, depending on the origin and type of waste. In Germany, a distinction is made between two types of waste with regard to final disposal: waste with negligible heat generation (low and intermediate-level radioactive waste) and waste that generates heat (high-level radioactive waste). The generation of heat is a consequence of the decay processes taking place in the highly radioactive materials. The radioactivity of the waste therefore decreases over time as the radiation energy is converted into heat, which in turn is released into the environment. The radioactivity and heat of spent fuel elements from nuclear power plants will decrease by around 90 per cent during interim storage. Interim storage is a necessary part of the disposal process, as the waste cannot be transferred to a final repository with its initial heat generation.

In addition to the two central interim storage facilities at Ahaus and Gorleben - the latter primarily stores vitrified high-level radioactive waste from the reprocessing of spent German fuel elements abroad - there are interim storage facilities for spent fuel elements directly at the nuclear power plant sites.

Both the vitrified waste and the spent fuel elements are stored in Castor casks, which are adapted to the respective types of waste. They safely enclose the waste, shield it from radioactive radiation and dissipate the decay heat using natural convection.

In Germany, a distinction is made between low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste and high-level radioactive waste. Like other countries, Germany also favours the separate final disposal of these types of waste. This offers safety-related advantages, as the two types of waste have different properties. This means that the safety requirements of the two repositories can be optimally adapted to the respective waste categories. In the selection and exploration of the Gorleben salt dome, as well as in the currently planned site selection procedure for the storage of highly radioactive waste, particular consideration is given to the heat generation of this waste. In contrast, only low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste with negligible heat generation will be disposed of in the Konrad mine.

If the waste were to be stored permanently in halls or close to the surface underground, it would have to be secured for a very long time, both technically and through guarding. However, the disposal of radioactive waste should be carried out by the generations that have benefited from the use of nuclear energy. Final storage of the waste in a suitable deep geological formation would ensure safety by isolating the radioactive materials from the biosphere and thus from humans through the host rock in which the waste is stored. Permanent aftercare by future generations would not be necessary. There is a worldwide scientific consensus on this. In its final report, the Commission on the Disposal of High-Level Radioactive Waste recommended final disposal in a deep geological formation with optional reversibility, i.e. the possibility of retrieval during the operating phase of the repository and precautions for retrievability after closure of the repository, as the preferred path for disposal.

There are various host rocks that are generally considered suitable for the final disposal of high-level radioactive waste; in Germany, these would be salt, clay and crystalline rock (gneiss, granite). As there are differences between the host rock formations, a comparison is only possible on a site-specific basis and in the context of an adapted repository concept. The identification of a "best possible site", as envisaged in the new site selection procedure, represents a considerable scientific challenge, especially in the intended cross-host-rock comparison and because not only the geology, but also a correspondingly adapted repository and container concept must always be used for a long-term safety assessment. The realisation of a "safe repository" according to the high standards of the Atomic Energy Act would be conceivable at various suitable sites. With regard to the host rock types, however, it can be said that the crystalline rock formations occurring in Germany have a rather unfavourable prognosis with regard to their suitability for a repository due to their small size and fissuring. Compared to salt in Germany, there is still a need for further research into clay rock formations that are potentially suitable for final disposal and that occur in both southern and northern Germany.

As a salt dome that has been mined for decades, the Asse is not comparable to an intact salt dome that, as in the case of Gorleben, was considered exclusively for use as a repository. Salt mining has created large cavities in the Asse, some of which extend to within a few metres of the so-called overburden, i.e. the rock layers above the salt formation. Taken together, these cavities have a volume of several million cubic metres. The rock pressure has led to deformations in the area of these cavities and, in some cases, to fractures. If an untouched salt dome were to be developed into a repository, only a small part of the volume would be used for the repository mine. This would then be surrounded by the large salt deposit and the comparatively small cavities would be backfilled at the end of storage. The Gorleben salt dome, for example, is a large, untouched salt deposit with a length of approx. 14 km, a maximum width of 4 km and a height below the surface of around 3 km, where all exploration measures were carried out with a view to a possible function as a repository. Moreover, from today's perspective, radioactive waste was emplaced in the Asse without a coherent emplacement concept and without adequate documentation.

Rock salt deposits are available in large numbers in Germany and have some particularly favourable properties for the deep geological disposal (final storage) of heat-generating radioactive waste. Rock salt behaves plastically under pressure, i.e. it flows. This is an advantage for the containment of the radioactive material and the final sealing of a repository. The good thermal conductivity of salt favours heat dissipation. In addition, salt is practically impermeable to liquids and gases. Last but not least, the extensive geological, mining and technical experience in salt mining in Germany can be used for deep disposal. Against this background, the focus was on salt as a host rock.

On this basis, a federal selection procedure (1974-76) and one by the state of Lower Saxony (1976/77), in which the potentially suitable sites were concentrated, were carried out and the Gorleben salt dome was selected in 1977. Before exploration work began, the public was extensively informed in connection with the National Waste Disposal Centre planned for Gorleben. In particular, the so-called Gorleben Hearing with the participation of international experts and numerous critics was exceptional at the time. Irrespective of the fundamental decision in favour of salt, German research institutions have been involved in scientific experiments and research work in underground laboratories in other host rocks, e.g. in clay rock (Mt. Terri, Switzerland; Bure, France) and crystalline rocks (Äspö, Sweden; Grimsel, Switzerland) on behalf of the BMWi since the 1990s.

In principle, final disposal of highly radioactive waste in Germany is also possible in clay rocks, but further research is still required. The Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) has identified the so-called suitable areas for all potential host rocks in Germany in three studies based on the criteria it used for the study purposes. These criteria deviate in part from the geoscientific criteria recommended in the final report of the Commission "Storage of High-Level Radioactive Waste". The studies on the host rocks crystalline (1994), salt (1995) and clay (2007) are available on the BGR website. From the clay study it can be deduced that there may be suitable clay rock sites in northern Germany (especially Lower Saxony) and southern Germany (Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg). Potentially suitable salt domes are concentrated in the North German Plain. Crystalline rocks for deep disposal of high-level radioactive waste are in principle available in Saxony and Bavaria in particular. Due to the fissuring and inhomogeneity of the deposits, the BGR does not expect to find crystalline information suitable for final disposal in Germany.

The safety requirements for the final disposal of heat-generating radioactive waste issued by the Federal Ministry for the Environment in 2010 stipulate that the waste can be retrieved for the duration of the repository's operation. For the period after closure, the retrievability of the waste is envisaged for a period of 500 years. The safety criteria stipulate requirements for the documentation and durability of the containers. The retrievability or retrievability of highly radioactive waste is not a question of the site, but of the design of the repository or the repository and container concept. If the option of being able to remove the waste from the repository is to be retained, precautions must be taken to this end and these must be taken into account when planning the repository. However, such precautions must ensure that the safety of the repository is not compromised. In its final report, the Commission on the Disposal of High-Level Radioactive Waste recommends the option of reversibility as an integral part of the disposal path to be followed for deep geological disposal in a repository mine. However, the priority of repository design should be long-term safety. It should be noted that retrievability or salvageability of the waste should be possible, but is not intended. The aim of disposal remains the long-term containment of waste without aftercare.

In the German debate, retrievability is defined as the planned or intended possibility of removing waste or waste containers from a repository. The safety requirements of the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMUB) from 2010 require retrievability for waste during the operating phase of the repository, but not after its final closure. In contrast, retrievability is defined as a prerequisite for an emergency measure with which the waste can be retrieved from the sealed repository if necessary. The BMUB's safety requirements stipulate retrievability for 500 years after closure of the repository. This leads above all to requirements for the future disposal containers, which should remain manageable for 500 years. In a future repository concept, the manageability of the containers would have to be considered in conjunction with the respective host rock and the repository concept would have to be designed accordingly. However, it should be noted that a potential repository could not be authorised if it were foreseeable, based on human judgement, that emergency retrieval could become necessary for safety reasons.

The aim of the final disposal of radioactive waste in deep geological formations is to safely store the waste in the long term and thus permanently isolate pollutants from the biosphere. The long-term safety of a repository must be ensured by means of staggered passive safety barriers so that no unreasonable burdens are imposed on future generations ("freedom from aftercare"). A long-term retrieval option contradicts the international definition of "final disposal" as a facility for the long-term, maintenance-free, indefinite storage of radioactive waste without the intention of retrieval. After the operational phase, a repository should reach its final, passively safe state as early as possible in order to ensure freedom from aftercare.

Permanent retrievability, on the other hand, would require the repository to be kept open for the long term, which would make it more like a geological interim storage facility. The longer retrievability is required, the more the concept of safe final disposal of waste with closure before the biosphere would be compromised.

Measured against the lifetime of a human being or even the time periods that can be surveyed historically, one million years seems unimaginable. In geology, however, one million years is a rather short period of time. Geological processes can sometimes be traced back over billions of years, and in the case of rock formations such as clay and salt, often over several hundred million years. These findings can be used to make reliable forecasts for the future - even for periods of time that no longer fit into our historical conceptions. The basis for the statements on long-term safety are, in addition to the technical barriers, calculations on the behaviour of the rock formation and the waste in the rock formation, which are based on the geological knowledge of the site. A repository can only be authorised if no or only negligible impacts on humans and the environment can occur during this verification period, even in the event of unfavourable developments.

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