Germany has halted a controversial plan to transport highly radioactive reactor fuel rods to Russia for reprocessing and storage of nuclear waste following strong protests from environmental groups and opposition parties.
German Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen said that 951 spent fuel rods from an experimental reactor in former East Germany will remain at the present storage facility in Ahaus until further notice because safe reprocessing cannot be guaranteed at the Mayak nuclear facility in Russia.
The nuclear fuel reprocessing and storage plant at Mayak in the Urals is not operating at present and therefore its safety cannot be established, he told reporters in Bonn on Monday.
The Federal Office for Protection Against Radiation had already approved the plan to ship the fuel rods in 18 containers from a Baltic Sea port to Russia. The fuel rods were supplied by the former Soviet Union for the experimental reactor at Rossendorf, near Dresden.
Following the German reunification 20 years ago, the state government of Saxony dismantled the spent fuel rods from the reactor and sent them to the Ahaus nuclear waste storage facility in the state of North Rhine Westphalia.
Russia had expressed its readiness to reprocess the spent fuel and store the waste at its facility under an inter-governmental agreement signed recently.
However, Russian environmental groups and scientists had warned against sending the radioactive material to Russia saying that the Mayak plant, which was one of the oldest nuclear research centres in the former Soviet Union, is very unsafe for reprocessing and storage of waste.
Russian environmental organisations and anti-nuclear activists had in a letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel, urged her not to send the fuel rods to the Mayak plant, which had a series of accidents since the 1950s and is now one of the most radioactive contaminated places in the world.
Germany's anti-nuclear Green party claimed that the decision to stop the nuclear shipment to Russia was the result of its campaign against the export.
Greenpeace also welcomed the decision and said it would have been "irresponsible" to send a nuclear transport to an "ecologically catastrophic region."
The Mayak plant was one of the centres of the ex-Soviet Union's nuclear weapons programme and it was kept secret for more than 30 years. A series of accidents in the plant led to the radioactive contamination of a large territory in the Ural region.
It is estimated that over half a million people have been irradiated and some of them were exposed to 20 times more radiation levels than during the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.