The Gorleben project has from the beginning symbolized a major gamble. The least of this gamble may turn out to be the heavy and exclusive bet that the German nuclear industry and the present government have placed on the Gorleben salt dome, although clearly it would be technically more prudent to have one or more back-up sites. The larger gamble is that, despite Chernobyl and the present defensive posture of the nuclear industry in Germany and around the world, the industry and government are betting heavily that the time has come to proceed with commercial reprocessing--and, inevitably, if the continued accumulation of burdensome stocks of separated plutonium is to be avoided, to use of plutonium fuel in light water reactors.
This gamble has affected nuclear waste management directly because disposal of high-level waste from reprocessing is the driving purpose behind the investigation and repository design work at Gorleben. Yet a likely outcome of this is a costly and embarrassing mismatch between repository and the waste requiring disposal. For many years, and possibly many decades, the greater part of the high-level waste on hand will be in the form of unreprocessed spent fuel. But the $1-billion-plus commitment to the exploration of the Gorleben salt dome has been made despite the fact that this site appears unsuited for spent fuel disposal as the Germans themselves have defined it, and is clearly unsuited for disposal in a retrievable mode.
The industry's present spent fuel management policy of expanding surface storage to fit the need, if continued long enough, will invite renewed charges that future generations will inherit the burden of coping with this generation's nuclear waste.