We are honoured to publish in this blog post an article from the magazine “Fokus Linn” (No. 6/2020), with kind thanks for the copyright granted by the publishing association “Pro Linn” (www.linnaargau.ch).
Nuclear waste repository: Site selection in a deception package
A fait accompli ?
Author: André Lambert, Baden, Switzerland
Photographs: Michel Jaussi, Linn, Switzerland
The Swiss Federal Office of Energy (SFOE) is formally in charge of the site selection procedure in accordance with the Deep Geological Repository Sectoral Plan. However, this authority is in fact guided by Nagra’s strategy. Just take a look at the SFOE’s in-house newsletter “Focus Tiefenlager” (September 2020). The year 2022 is printed in bold type, with the words “Nagra announces sites” printed in red on white below it. – The compass is fixed, the countdown is ticking. The SFOE is tellingingly silent on the matter.
Nagra’s management had already predicted this milestone for 2019 seven years ago. At that time it was still called “provisional site selection”. With the exception of the adjective “provisional” (which was used as a precautionary tranquilliser) the message was at least honest: the site has been chosen. Irrevocably. Regardless of all the critical questions about long-term safety that remained unanswered (unanswerable?) until then and for a long time to come: deep erosion by advancing ice-age glaciers, conflicts of use with raw material resources in the subsurface, threats to deep groundwater, to name just the most controversial aspects.
Now Nagra’s management is risking a march through a socio-political minefield. With crystal-clear awareness, because it itself assesses the danger of failure as a result of its prejudicial choice of site as “very critical”. Therefore, it wrapped the original partial term “election” in a transparent PR sham and mutated it, semantically clumsy, first to “announcement”, more recently to “notification”. As if this dressing up of words would change one iota the fact that the Nagra management deliberately wants to create a fait accompli with this premature site selection. Accomplished facts that would only need to be cemented in place until the general licence is granted – in some sort of entente cordiale with the SFOE, as it were. A procedurally untenable precedent! How can the SFOE (as the leading federal authority) concede to Nagra the announcement of a decision of epochal significance without adequately informing the public, let alone having to justify its decision externally? And where are the material requirements of the supervisory bodies in the “Federal Nuclear Safety Inspectorate” (Ensi), which mainly lag behind the events like extras? It is not difficult to foresee that the acute conflict potential of this institutionally questionable breaking point will have a decisive influence on the progress of the repository debate.
However, the sectoral plan “procedure” provides for this process; Nagra’s management is therefore acting in accordance with the law, no question about it! However, in the focus of public attention and in view of the precarious viability of its scientific and technical foundation for this momentous decision, it is venturing onto dangerously thin ice.
Where is the basis for the decision?
Nagra is currently drilling its way through the last three remaining potential siting areas (which in any case have had no alternative for the last two decades). But Nagra did not even wait for this drilling campaign to be completed, instead announcing to the media on 3 November 2020 that a repository could be built “safely” at all three sites. With this notorious rush to judgment, Nagra has cemented its strategy, which has already been exposed to the point of recognition, of rushing to create a fait accompli despite the lack of facts. After all, the scientific-technical bases that have been collected must first be sifted through, examined, evaluated, discussed, documented and, above all, critically evaluated across the regions and weighted according to predefined criteria. This requires a comprehensive synthesis with consistent and comprehensible conclusions. Only on this basis can the safety-based site comparison be made, which in turn should credibly justify the selection.
And all this until 2022 for the site announcement? Simply unrealistic! The Nagra management is recommended to follow the insightful wisdom of Federal Councillor Ueli Maurer, who stated with disarming self-irony: “… one always stumbles over self-imposed deadlines”. Nevertheless, the tandem of Nagra and SFOE is determined to drive the stake into the ground ahead of schedule in less than 24 months. With the argumentation, which can hardly be surpassed in terms of meagreness, that the justification is, after all, the subject of the application for the general licence in accordance with the relevant plan. – For the affected population, this is a classic “pig in a poke”; for Nagra itself, it is a risky high-wire act without a net in terms of acceptance strategy. For Nagra itself, this is a high-wire act without a net in terms of acceptance strategy, because by pressing ahead it is imposing a paralysing state of suspension on the regions concerned, with uncertainty lasting for years until the decision on the general licence.
At least those responsible in the affected cantons also recognised the explosive imponderability of this prospect. In a statement, the “Committee of Cantons” (AdK) criticised the early site selection and demanded, with unusual clarity, the prior disclosure of the scientific-technical basis for the decision and the selection arguments: well-founded, peer-reviewed and documented.
In plain language, this means:
- The announcement of the site selection must be made in a factually comprehensible manner on the basis of a criteria-supported, publicly documented, safety-based site comparison that is published in a report. The results of exploratory drilling and seismic exploration should be accessible to independent expert committees.
- The SFOE, as the authority responsible for conducting the procedure, must oblige the Ensi to document its assessment of the early site selection and its technical and scientific justification in a written statement for the attention of the public.
- The competent cantonal experts of the AGSiKa (Cantonal Safety Working Group) – if necessary with the assistance of their independently judging “Cantonal Expert Group on Safety” (KES) – comment in writing on the site “announcement” and its evaluation by the Ensi for the attention of the public.
The cantons are well advised to give formal emphasis to their demands. Otherwise they will be outsmarted and ultimately become losers. It is up to them to ensure that the so-called sectoral plan procedure does not degenerate into a farce and end in the wastepaper of absurdity.
Safety remains provisional
From the perspective of a sober assessment of the current state of knowledge, none of the three potential siting areas still up for selection shines in a particularly favourable light. Each has its quirks in terms of guaranteeing long-term safety, and depending on the criterion, some aspects are also relevant. This balance in mediocrity of potential suitability harbours the temptation to push political-geographical opportunities to the fore as “criteria” in the site selection process, which have nothing to do with the primacy of safety – which the Aargau government, in particular, has emphatically invoked. Therefore, a serious, neither pecuniary nor time-driven and uncompromisingly open-ended assessment of the presumed suitability is absolutely indispensable. What is at stake is nothing less than trust and credibility as the indispensable foundation of acceptance.
Further developments should therefore be followed with increased vigilance. What the public expects from the authorities and Nagra is not pre-cut PR phrases but procedural transparency and unvarnished information about the results of the site investigations and the syntheses and project-related conclusions drawn from them.
In its propaganda brochures, Nagra tends to use misleading terms such as “suitable”, “safe” and “certain”. But neither safety, suitability nor certainty can be projected a priori into the future. Schaffhausen cantonal councillor Walter Vogelsanger puts it in a nutshell with regard to the upcoming site selection: “The word ‘suitable’ reflects a false certainty in the current state of the process.”
Science does not provide absolute certainties. Rather, scientific work means accepting the resistance of reality, always with an alert distrust of oneself. This mentality includes the honest willingness to take professional criticism seriously, if necessary even to the point of abandoning one’s own position. Paragraph 1 of the German Final Repository Site Selection Act describes this attitude as a “participative, science-based, transparent, self-questioning and learning process”.
What is required of science is a respectful attitude of reverence towards the (perhaps unsolvable?) task. Instead of projectively praising the “safest site”, we should rather be talking about a criteria-based prioritisation of a region that, based on the current state of knowledge, promises to come closest to meeting the requirements for long-term safety.
In the forthcoming “site selection announcement”, the SFOE and Nagra would be well advised to address the public with this basic attitude. This would not be a sign of weakness but one of strength, signalling honesty, openness and credible respect for real concerns that exist in the population.
Regrettably, there has been little sign of this so far. On the contrary: in an official submission to the SFOE (within the framework of the Technical Forum on Safety), the Pro Bözberg Association asked in what form Nagra would justify and document its “provisional” choice of site (https://www.ensi.ch/de/technisches-forum/vorzeitige-standortfestlegung-in-etappe-3/).
Unsurprisingly, the terse answer was that Nagra had “held out the prospect” of writing a “short report” on the subject. As for the justification of the choice, this would be done in the general licence procedure and documented as part of the corresponding applications. In plain language, that means many years from now! Such presumption is irritating. And it could have an impact at the latest in the referendum on the general licence – if it is ever granted. The repository project at the supposedly “safest” Wellenberg site, which was democratically scuttled two decades ago, is a warning sign on the horizon.
Once again, the sectoral plan strategists at the SFOE and Nagra are trying to force a high-risk, irreversible siting decision on a skewed, still completely unconsolidated factual basis. In doing so, they are putting their credibility, public confidence and acceptance of their project at risk. Wouldn’t it be more expedient to give more space to the intellectual effort for a solid, comprehensibly documented basis for decision-making? In any case, economists would speak of a far higher potential for profitable return on investment – with minimised risk.
The author, Dr André Lambert, is an ETH geologist who acted as a departmental and project manager in various functions at Nagra from 1989 to 2012. Among other duties, as head of the main project “Opalinus Clay” project, he played a key role in the elaboration of comprehensive documentation for the feasibility study “Entsorgungsnachweis 2002”. Since retirement he comments on the disposal plans of the federal government and Nagra from his personal perspective based on longtime experience in the field of site exploration for geological repositories.
Page 18/19: View from Nagra’s “Bözberg_1” borehole to the Alpine ridge. The long-distance Alpine tectonic thrust has an impact far into northern Switzerland, where the Jura rock strata have been folded into striking mountain ranges such as the Chestenberg (left) and Gislifluh-Linnerberg (right). Waves of rock that seem to be breaking up at the Bözberg.
Page 21: Technical installation at the Bözberg_1 drill site. The camera hovers exactly vertically above the drilling tower, which thus obscures the view into the borehole. The borehole reaches 1037 m below the surface. Enough to examine the Jura rocks, but far too little to seriously assess the bedrock.
Page 22/23: Nagra-drilling site Bözberg_2 (“Riedäcker”) in a grandiose landscape, on the horizon the Lägernridge (left), over Alpstein, Glarus and Central Swiss Alps. The district of Oberbözberg in the middle ground marks the location of the possible site for a nuclear repository at a depth of just under 500 metres. This would be easily accessible from the Würenlingen interim storage facility via a tunnel: a criterion for site selection?
Page 24: No operational signpost: a new part of the Bözberg municipality, or have the final repository dice already fallen?
Page 25: View from Nagra’s Bözberg_1 borehole to the Alpine ridge