Switzerland has announced plans to build a nuclear waste storage facility on the border with Germany, leaving communities concerned about issues of safety and clean drinking water supply.
The National Cooperative for the Disposal of Radioactive Waste (NAGARA) is behind the proposal. The Swiss Federal Office of Energy said it suggested an area of Nordlich Lagern north of Zurich and close to the border with Germany.
Nagra was founded by power plant operators along with the Swiss government to tackle the controversial question of how to dispose of radioactive waste.
Nordlich Lagern ist der Sicherste Standort für und Tiefenlager: Dort egnet sich das Gestein am Besten.
— Nagra (@Nagra_Schweiz) 10 September 2022
How can the safety of waste be guaranteed?
According to Patrick Studer, an official at Nagra, the waste will be dumped several hundred meters underground in the opalinus soil.
“The required confinement time is approximately 200,000 years for high-level waste and approximately 30,000 years for low-level and intermediate-level waste,” said Nagra’s website.
The waste will be sourced from five Swiss nuclear power plants. The medical and industrial sectors will also be allowed to contribute their own waste.
Currently, there are four nuclear power plants operating in Switzerland. As long as their safety is guaranteed, they can continue their operation. That would mean in the 2040s.
However, so-called deep geological reserves for spent nuclear fuel and other radioactive waste need to be approved by both the Swiss government and parliament. This process is expected to take several years.
German community and authorities are concerned
Concerns are high among German communities on the border. Their concern is mainly about the issues of safety and drinking water supply.
“The question of the safety of drinking water is a major concern for the population,” said Martin Steinbrunner of the German Coordinating Office for the planned waste facility.
The German Federal Ministry for the Environment has criticized Switzerland’s decision to build a nuclear waste stockpile on the German border.
“The proximity of the planned site near the Baden-Württemberg village of Hohentengen” has become a problem during the construction phase and during the operation of the reserves, said Christian Kuhn, Parliamentary State Secretary in the Ministry of the Environment and a member of the German Ministry of Environment. Parliament (Bundestag) from Baden-Württemberg.
At the same time Kuhn insisted that it was “correct and important” that the geology be the deciding criterion for the site of a deposit.
There were two other sites to choose from, which are very close to the German border.
In Germany, the decision to have a dedicated storage site for highly radioactive nuclear waste will not be discussed until 2031 at the earliest.
Long process before construction begins
It is still unclear where nuclear waste will be prepared and packaged for final storage, should the waste storage facility be approved.
Nagra has said that it will submit a planning application by 2024. The Swiss government then makes a decision on the application, and the parliament must subsequently give assent.
With this process in mind, the storage facility is unlikely to be commissioned any time around 2050.