BERLIN, Sept 7 (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday called for a decision on where to store radioactive nuclear material after a scandal over leaks at a depot this week sparked a row about what to do with atomic waste.
Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel said last week his ministry would assume responsibility for the Asse facility in the state of Lower Saxony after he attacked the operators for presiding over years of leaks of radioactive waste.
A report showed barrels of waste were leaking at the former salt mine which was converted in the 1960s into a pilot project for a planned permanent nuclear storage facility at Gorleben, also in Lower Saxony.
The latest revelations have fed a wider debate about nuclear energy in Germany.
The Asse scandal raises questions about Gorleben’s feasibility at a time when nuclear operators who are lobbying the government to reverse a deal to abandon all nuclear power by 2021 must prove that future waste can be stored safely.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, who back nuclear power, are worried the Asse situation will undermine their calls for a rethink of the planned phase-out.
Merkel said in an interview on German radio there needed to be decisions about what to do with highly radioactive material.
“We do also need to make progress in the storage of highly radioactive material. It’s about atomic plants. A moratorium has been agreed for Gorleben and of course decisions must be made on how things go from here,” Merkel told Deutschlandfunk radio.
Some members of her conservative party are demanding that Gabriel, of the Social Democrats (SPD), lifts a moratorium on research at Gorleben about the geological suitability of the site.
The moratorium is the result of battles between proponents of nuclear power, who unsuccessfully tried to rush through Gorleben’s commissioning in the 1970s, and a powerful lobby of opponents for whom the unresolved storage question buys time to discredit nuclear, and finally abandon it.
Der Spiegel magazine quoted a strategy paper in its latest issue in which conservative lawmaker Katherine Reiche demanded that Gabriel immediately lift the moratorium on exploring the possibilities at Gorleben.
A search for alternatives elsewhere, which Gabriel prefers, would cost at least 1 billion euros, said the magazine.
Conservative Norbert Roettgen called on Gabriel to present his suggestions for a final repository for nuclear waste.
“Gabriel must show he has done his homework and ... present his ideas about a final storage place,” he told German television. If the idea of Gorleben was given up completely, energy companies could make demands worth billions of euros.
High fuel prices and worries about energy security have given impetus to conservatives’ arguments in recent months that nuclear must be kept as part of the German power mix but many citizens remain worried about safety and the waste issue. (Reporting by Madeline Chambers and Vera Eckert; Editing by Quentin Bryar)