Nagra’s 50th birthday: another siting proposal for a deep geological repository
Nagra was founded in 1972. Since then, it has proposed repository sites several times. Unsuccessfully so far. Today – on its 50th birthday – Nagra is once again presenting a new site. In due course, a deep geological repository is to be constructed there for all of Switzerland’s radioactive waste, i.e. for waste from the operation of nuclear power plants (commissioned between the 1960s and 1980s), as well as from applications in medicine, industry and research. If the disposal programme follows the “Deep Geological Repository Sectoral Plan”, we would now be about halfway to the commissioning of a repository.
In accordance with the requirements of the Sectoral Plan, Nagra is now preparing the application for a general licence, to justify and define the choice of site. Will this finally bring Switzerland’s nuclear waste disposal to an end? Answer: It might, but it might not. Once before, Nagra thought it was close to achieving its goal of a “final repository” for low and intermediate level waste (L/ILW). That was in the 1990s at Wellenberg. However, the project was finally rejected in the second referendum in the canton of Nidwalden in 2002. Nagra’s first “Gewähr” project for high-level radioactive waste had also failed in 1985. And in 2002, it moved forward with the Zürcher Weinland as the supposedly best site. However, the Federal Council took a different view and initiated the “Deep Geological Repository Sectoral Plan” for the site selection process.
Where do we stand today, close to the completion of the Sectoral Plan?
In the third stage of the Sectoral Plan, Nagra investigated and evaluated its last three (self-declared “best”) siting regions: Bözberg (Jura East), Zürcher Weinland (Zurich North-East) and Nördlich Lägern. All three regions are not uninteresting even against the background of the narrowly structured and complicated geological conditions in Switzerland. However, none of them meets or resists all the suitability and exclusion criteria defined in the Sectoral Plan concept with regard to long-term nuclear safety. There are still numerous thresholds and obstacles, ranging from possible deep glacial erosion (especially in Zurich North-East), tectonic stress, possible natural resources (all three sites), insufficient storage depth (Jura East), and many more. Several necessary site investigations are pending or have not yet been completed. In view of these geologically suboptimal conditions, the question arises, quite rightly, as to whether a site selection can and should be made at all today or later. And: Is Nagra the right body to do so under these circumstances? Doesn’t the duty of care require that – at least for highly radioactive waste – the option of storage at a geologically appropriate site abroad should also be examined?
So we are looking forward to the factual and philosophical discussions that will follow in the coming years, to the fundamental demands for the greatest possible safety, and to the demand for a “pragmatic”, i.e. minimalist, but economically “sustainable” solution in Switzerland. Should this discussion be concluded, then it will probably also be about the granting of the general licence. But the geological repositry will still be a long way from being built. And on the long, literally rocky road to realisation there are still many hurdles to be overcome, and (unpleasant) surprises continue to lurk around every corner of the project, right up to the bitter end.
What do we have to look forward to? What should and can we hope for?