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Nuclear Safari In Deutschland:A Waste Story

By S. P. Udayakumar

08 December, 2012

Back in June 2009 I got a first-hand opportunity to face the nuclear
demon that I had been fighting against all along. Deep in a hell-hole
in a remote corner of a distant country!

I did not realize the seriousness of this trip until I saw my name in
big bold letters on the door of a bathroom in the visitor’s building
of Salt Mine Asse II. I was asked to strip naked and change the
clothing starting with the underwear that they had kept ready there.
The shirt and pants measurements and shoe size I had provided were
helpful. As I dressed up, I was beginning to look more like an
astronaut who was going into the depth of the Earth rather than flying
into the space.

With a heavy hard helmet donning my head, a dosimeter was hung around
my neck. With the hefty battery kit pulling my neck on the right side,
a sturdy headlight was attached to the helmet. And then a very weighty
oxygen kit was hung on my left shoulder. With all these safety
accessories bogging me down, I could feel mild pain on my shoulders.
The instructions given to deal with a possible fire or accident inside
the mine was turning my stomach and caused palpitations.

When my friends from Argentina, Brazil and Germany and I were going
down a rickety lift (do they still call it that when it is taking you
down?) with a strong draft with so much noise and shake, I thought of
the dangerous African safari I had undertaken a few years ago in the
Kenyan jungles. But this nuclear safari was a lot more dangerous and
deadly. If I was forced to pick one of the two safaris, I would
certainly choose the African animals.

At 590 meters depth, we were at the mouth of the salt mine. And there
was a small hand-carved St. Barbara grotto on one of the walls. Saint
Barbara is the patron saint of artillerymen. She is also traditionally
the patron of armored men, military engineers, gunsmiths, miners and
anyone else who works with cannons and explosives. She is invoked
against thunder and lightning and all accidents arising from
explosions of gunpowder. She is venerated by every Catholic who faces
the danger of sudden and violent death at work.

We all got onto an open jeep driven by a woman mine officer and her
colleague. I could not completely understand the architecture as there
were narrow passages going in all directions. But one thing was clear.
That I was deep in the long and convoluted nuclear waste intestine of
the German nuclear industry.

Our first stop was a hidden corner of the nuclear waste burial site.
Beneath our feet lay hundreds of deadly and treacherous
waste-containing barrels. The woman mine officer explained to us in
German-tasting English that the barrels were mechanically downed
through a narrow metallic hole and buried. We were standing some 6
feet above this deadly treasure on a heavy metal plate. The
possibility of radiation was so alarming. The waste, plutonium, the
clothing of the workers, metallic parts of the equipment, and
everything else had been crushed and thrust into those barrels.

We were driven deeper into the mines. At one point, our guide stopped
and showed us the crevices of the mines where salt water was dripping
and forming into icicles. One could easily guess that not everything
was right in the salt caves. At another place, more water was
collecting with a steady and heavy flow. One liter of water was
collecting every minute and this water was being taken out of the
caves manually.

We went to another side of the caves at 625 meter depth. Some 8,000
low-grade waste barrels had been dumped there and were covered with 2
feet of salt blown mechanically. If you scratched with your bare
hands, you could dig out the hazmat.

Most of the nuclear waste from the German nuclear power plants had
been stored in the Salt Mine Asse II since 1967. Although the local
people had objected to the project, the German government and
scientists supported the project; went ahead and buried the wastes
until 1978. The water flow inside the caves became much stronger in
1988 but the government still stubbornly rejected all opposition.

In June 2008, it was found out that the water in the mine was
contaminated with Cesium 137. There was a suggestion to fill up the
mines with water so that it would take the waste even deeper and make
the whole depository safer.

As I heard all these disturbing stories, I was naturally worried about
the nuclear waste management in India. With scary and sordid thoughts
and feelings crisscrossing my mind and heart and soul, I stood there
stunned. The nuclear safari was over.

At 650 meter depth, the mine authorities checked our radiation
exposure level at the Hand Fuss Kleider monitor before exiting the
mines. The lift ride back to the face of the Earth was quite uplifting
in every sense of the word, and I had never been happier to see the
light at the end of the (vertical) tunnel. We were asked to take
another shower and change to our original clothing.

We all know shit happens. But we cannot understand the concept of
making nuclear shit in order for it to happen in the future, to our
own children and grandchildren and the umpteen numbers of unborn
generations. One thing is for sure, though! Those who make nuclear
shit will suffer the shame and stigma. Or, will they?

S P Udayakumar, Coordinator, People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy,
spearheading the movement in Koodankulam




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