Asse II

   (   if you speak German)  - darkometer rating: 7 -
Have you ever wondered whether you can visit a repository for radioactive waste as an ordinary mortal? To be frank, I never had, it simply had never occurred to me that this could possibly be a real option. But then I was told that you can indeed do just that, namely at Asse, near Salzgitter in Germany.
That is: you can go on underground tours, first down hundreds of metres in a mineshaft lift and then be taken around the former salt mine that's been a storage facility for low- to medium-level radioactive waste since the 1960s. Now the waste has to be retrieved due to water breaches and increasing instability of the mine's caverns. It's a massive operation that'll take years to accomplish. Above ground, there's a visitor centre providing ample information on the subject at the site.  
More background info: Asse II was one of a local set of mines where potassium and rock salt were extracted from 1906 onwards. The mine closed in 1965 and the site was taken over by the state to “test” the long-term storage of low-level and medium-level radioactive waste. From 1967 to 1978 some 125,000 barrels with such waste were dumped underground here. I assumed the waste would remain down there for ever.
Yet right from the start there were reasons to doubt whether this mine would be suitable as a permanent geological repository for nuclear waste, but in those enthusiastic days of the Atomic Age, such concerns didn't have the priority they have now.
The “research” phase of the mine ended in 1995 after which it was simply being monitored by a special agency. In 2008 some media reports disclosed the fact that contaminated brine had been pumped deep into the lowest part of the mine – as groundwater was breaching into the underground caverns. Thus it was feared the metal barrels could be corroded and leak their contents and contaminate the groundwater of the region, especially if the whole mine were to become flooded.
Currently some 12.5 cubic metres of water accumulate in the mine daily and have to be pumped to the surface. Only a small part of this is contaminated and has to be stored in special tanks.
Moreover, the mountain that the mine is under turned out to be less geologically stable than previously assumed. Hence the cracks in the rock that allowed water to seep into the mine. The caverns themselves may also be in danger of collapse.
So in 2010 it was decided that all the radioactive waste was to be retrieved from the mine and stored somewhere else. Needless to say, that is a very tall order indeed. The whole operation will take many years, but the first stages are now being tackled. If all goes well, the waste will be retrieved safely after which the mine will be filled in and sealed. However, in an emergency or if the radiation-exposure risks to personnel and local residents become too high, plans may have to be changed again and some of the waste may have to stay underground after all … it's a difficult balance of a multitude of factors.
Whereas in the past, the atomic industry and the relevant government branches overseeing it tended to be rather secretive, the FRG's official policy today is one of openness, especially since Germany, in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, decided to end all nuclear power generation by 2022.
And one outcome of this new openness is the fact that places such as the Info Centre at Asse exist, with their own staff ready to do their best to inform the public and any visitors to the site.
Since 2008 the site had been under the aegis of the Bundesamt für Strahlenschutz (Federal Office for Radiation Protection), while still being operated by the Asse GmbH (Asse Ltd.), but it has now (as of April 2017) passed into the sole responsibility of the newly founded Bundesgesellschaft für Endlagerung (BGE) – 'federal company for final storage'. But apart from the name, nothing appears to have changed with regard to the info centre and what visitors can expect.
What there is to see: The most important thing has to be mentioned first: if you want to go and see this site you have to know German. And it will have to be more than just a decent grasp of the language. If you want to take part in the tours of the underground ex-salt mine you have to be able to understand and follow the instructions. Furthermore, the subject matter is by its very nature quite technical, so at least a certain grounding in its terminology (and that also in German!) will be useful if not essential. The visitor centre too is all in German only. Without the linguistic requirements you won't get much out of this site.
Since this restriction will already limit the readership of this chapter as well as numbers of potential visitors to the site, I'll try to keep this short:
I did not go on an underground tour anyway. I had tried to get a space on one of the dates I could make, but it turned out it was too short notice and they were all fully booked … at first. Then they contacted me again saying there had been a cancellation and I could go on the tour on the date I had initially requested after all. But unfortunately by then I had already made other plans. Had I gone on the tour I would have been unable to reach my next destination (which wasn't cancelable) in the north of Germany the same day, so – with much regret – I had to decline the offer. If I can ever slot it in on another Germany tour I will definitely try to plan this better, register early and then go on such a tour. It seems a very exciting idea! For info on the rules and the reservation modalities see below under 'access'.
However, I did still stop by the Asse site when I was en route north and just had a look at the info centre and had a chat with some of the staff there (who were extremely welcoming!).
In addition to tons of info material – brochures, DVDs, whole A4 books – they have a small but interesting exhibition about the Asse site and the plans for retrieving the radioactive waste. Everything is in German only, though, and much of it comes in the form of interactive screens. In addition there are charts and models and one hands-on installation at which you can measure the reach of (a non-dangerous amount of) radioactivity. Concrete artefacts are few, and include samples of rock and salt as well as different saline solutions (all gathered underground in the mine).
In addition there is a mannequin in full miner's dress, exactly of the sort that visitors have to wear on the underground tours (see below). Furthermore there are two scale models of the mine – one in the reception hall is an above-ground model out of which you can pull a 3D representation of the mine's shafts and chambers. In the back room there's a model of the chambers that contain the radioactive waste, with stacks of yellow nuclear waste barrels lovingly made in miniature.
Obviously enough this is a place that will only be fully appreciated by those who have a keen interest in everything nuclear, and especially in the issue of storage and disposal of radioactive waste. I picked up a whole stack of info material (all given away for free!) that will keep me busy for a long while and it will surely educate and prepare me for when I hopefully get a chance to go on one of their underground mine tours some day after all.
Location: A little over a mile (1.8 km) north of the small town of Remlingen, which itself is a good 6 miles (10 km) south-east of Wolfenbüttel/Salzgitter and some 15 miles (20 km) south of Brunswick, in the federal state of Lower Saxony in Germany.
Google maps locator (info centre): [52.1281, 10.6693]
Access and costs: quite remote, but still fairly easily reachable by car; free
Details: Ideally you should have your own means of transport to get to this spot. Remlingen is on the B79 trunk road between Wolfenbüttel and Halberstadt. The road to the Asse II site branches off from the K20 road on the northern edge of Remlingen.
At Asse drive along the oddly named street “Kuhlager” (which in German literally means 'cow storage' … rather than 'nuclear waste storage') and past the car park for employees. Turn left towards the visitor car park – but don't park there; instead keep going up the hill past this main car park and you'll get to the parking spaces right outside the Info Asse building.
In theory you can also get a bus to Remlingen, the regional bus line 710 runs hourly from the centre of Wolfenbüttel (a less frequent service is line 756). From Remlingen it is about half an hour's walk north to Asse II (and not the most scenic of walks).
The opening times of the info centre are: every weekday from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission free.
For the underground tours you have to register weeks in advance, and submit personal details, including passport number, and clothing and shoe sizes (as you will be fitted out with special mine clothes and boots). Individual visitors will be allocated to groups if spaces are available. The maximum group size is 14. Minimum age of participants is 16. Note that you have to be reasonably healthy and fit. The conditions underground are taxing, with temperatures in excess of 30 degrees Celsius. Moreover you have to do some walking and in addition to the mine clothes will have to carry a 5 kg emergency kit at all times. But this service too is free of charge. Tours take place on weekdays only; meeting point is at the Info Centre at 11:30 a.m.
Full details, and relevant contact numbers/email addresses for enquiries, can be found on the (German language only) BGE Asse website (external link, opens in new window). Restrictions and rules can be found on this page (also external link, also in German only).
Time required: The underground tours last a couple of hours, plus around three more hours for intro briefing (beginning at 11:30 a.m.), preparation and debriefing afterwards, so in total basically the best part of a whole day. The info centre alone can be done in less than an hour … probably more if you want to watch and read everything on site (in German!).
Combinations with other dark destinations: If the possibility of visiting a site such as Asse is remarkable in itself, it is perhaps even more astonishing that there are two more such sites that can be visited in the same fashion (all three are managed by the BGE – see above).
One is the Schacht Konrad II at Salzgitter to the west, a former iron ore mine (which gave rise to the steelworks of Salzgitter). This is currently being turned into an actual permanent repository for low- and medium-level radioactive waste (and will eventually receive that retrieved from Asse).
The other is at Morsleben and is similar to Asse – a former salt mine used as a repository in the earlier days of the nuclear industry and now seen as unfit for the purpose so that it too will have be dissolved and the radioactive waster retrieved. Morsleben was just across the Iron Curtain of the inner-German border in the GDR and received that (ex-)state's nuclear waste.
Morsleben is furthermore very close to the former GDR border checkpoint Marienborn, which provides a unique insight into the GDR's border security paranoia back in the Cold War era.
For more see under that entry and under Germany in general.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Asse and Remlingen are ca. 25 miles (40 km) north of the Harz, the highest of the German “Mittelgebirge” (highlands/forested mountain range) and a major holidaying region, especially for nature lovers.
In general see under Germany.
  • Asse 01 - info centreAsse 01 - info centre
  • Asse 02 - exhibit outsideAsse 02 - exhibit outside
  • Asse 03 - insideAsse 03 - inside
  • Asse 04 - exhibitionAsse 04 - exhibition
  • Asse 05 - learn everything about nuclear waste hereAsse 05 - learn everything about nuclear waste here
  • Asse 06 - geology tooAsse 06 - geology too
  • Asse 07 - interactive readioactivityAsse 07 - interactive readioactivity
  • Asse 08 - modelAsse 08 - model
  • Asse 09 - representation of the undergorund chambers with nuclear wasteAsse 09 - representation of the undergorund chambers with nuclear waste
  • Asse 10 - nuclear waste in miniatureAsse 10 - nuclear waste in miniature
  • Asse 11 - saltAsse 11 - salt
  • Asse 12 - salt solutionsAsse 12 - salt solutions
  • Asse 13 - pull-out model of the mineAsse 13 - pull-out model of the mine
  • Asse 14 - what you would have to wear to go down there for realAsse 14 - what you would have to wear to go down there for real
  • Asse 15 - historic mine shaftAsse 15 - historic mine shaft

©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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