West Germany's embattled nuclear energy program, stalled for more than a year by administrative and court injunctions, is back on line -- at least for a while. An important barrier was removed last week when the Bonn government and the nation's individual states managed to hammer out an interim agreement on nuclear waste disposal.
The agreement seems to indicate that the antinuclear tide in West Germany has at least been stemmed, is not reversed. Under the impact of the crisis in the Persian Gulf and a staggering oil bill (which has finally thrown the West German trade balance into deficit), the states have begun to yield to the federal government.
According to the new pact, the states will be able to permit the construction and coming onstream of new nuclear power plants for the next five years even though the permanent and safe disposal of radioactive nuclear wastes is by no means assured. It was the lack of such a guarantee that had prompted the state authorities to withhold construction licenses for nine nuclear power plants last year.
For the time being, that is until 1985, the conditions for licensing have become less stringent. Construction may be initiated and unfinished plants may be completed, provided there are at least safe facilities for the interim storage of burnt fuel rods. But after 1985, it is back to the old rules: The states must either have reprocessing plants available or show that they have found the site for such plants before they can issue construction licenses for new nuclear power projects.
Agreement on these compromise guidelines gives the federal government a welcome break in the protracted struggle against ecologists and left-wing critics of nuclear energy. Bonn has been eager to lighten the country's mounting dependence on expensive and unreliable oil imports by pushing a vast program of nuclear electricity generation. Yet in the late 1970s, the government fell prey to its own perfectionism.
The hallmark of West Germany's nuclear program has been the quest for an "integrated" waste disposal system. Unlike the United States, where spent fuel rods are normally slated for permanent burial, the West Germans opted for a "closed" fuel cycle. This requires the reprocessing of burnt fuel rods to separate radioactive wastes from unused uranium and plutonium, both of which can be recycled into fresh fuel elements.
Until recently, all the components of such a closed system seemed well in place. Bonn had selected the small village of Gorleben in Lower Saxony as the site for a gigantic nuclear "park" where spent fuel would be reprocessed and recycled. Only the unusable and highly radioactive leftovers were to be dispatched into underground salt domes located in the vicinity of Gorleben.
But when confronted with determined local and national resistance to the project, the government of Lower Saxony balked at the federal project. The government's nuclear energy program was effectively derailed, for without safe disposal facilities there could be no construction of badly needed nuclear power plants under the existing statutory rules. As oil prices rose, so did the worries of a hamstrung government in Bonn.
In addition to agreeing to the interim disposal plan, the state governments are going ahead with the search for permanent disposal and reprocessing facilities. The state of Hesse is actively pushing for the construction of a reprocessing plant that is slated to treat 350 tons of spent fuel per year. Even the government of Lower Saxony has begun to relent. The authorities in Hannover are now willing to provide a permanent storage site if test drillings demonstrate the geological stability of the targeted area.
If the Hesse reprocessing project goes through, the plant could start operating in about five years. Speedy construction is crucial because the just-concluded agreement between Bonn and the states defines 1985 as the deadline after which reprocessing replaces interim storage as an indispensable condition of new nuclear power plant construction.