‘Project of the century’: Swiss seek to bury radioactive waste

Storing radioactive waste above ground is a risky business, but the Swiss think they have found the solution: burying spent nuclear fuel deep underground in clay. 

'Project of the century': Swiss seek to bury radioactive waste
A picture shows the secure entrance of the acces tunnel to the Mont-Terri Rock Laboratory. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

The Mont Terri international laboratory was built to study the effects of burying radioactive waste in clay which sits 300 metres (985 feet) below the surface near Saint-Ursanne in the northwestern Jura region. 

The underground laboratory stretches across 1.2 kilometres (0.7 miles) of tunnels. Niches along the way, each around five metres high, are filled with various storage simulations, containing small quantities of radioactive material monitored by thousands of sensors. 

More than 170 experiments have been carried out to simulate the different phases of the process — positioning the waste, sealing off the tunnels, surveillance — and to reproduce every imaginable physical and chemical effect. 

According to experts, it takes 200,000 years for the radioactivity in the most toxic waste to return to natural levels. 

Geologist Christophe Nussbaum, who heads the laboratory, said researchers wanted to determine what the possible effects could be “on storage that needs to last for nearly one million years.” 

That “is the duration that we need to ensure safe confinement,” he said, adding that so far, “the results are positive.” 

Potential sites identified

Three prospective sites in the northeast, near the German border, have been identified to receive such radioactive waste. 

Switzerland’s nuclear plant operators are expected to choose their preferred option in September. 

The Swiss government is not due to make the final decision until 2029, but that is unlikely to be the last word as the issue would probably go to a referendum under Switzerland’s famous direct democracy system. 

Despite the drawn-out process, environmental campaigners Greenpeace say Switzerland is moving too fast. 

“There are a myriad of technical questions that have not been resolved,” Florian Kasser, in charge of nuclear issues for the environmental activist group, told AFP. 

For starters, he said, it remains to be seen if the systems in place can “guarantee there will be no radioactive leakage in 100, 1,000 or 100,000 years.” 

“We are putting the cart before the horse, because with numerous questions still unresolved, we are already looking for sites” to host the storage facilities, he said. 

Kasser said Switzerland also needed to consider how it will signal where there sites are to ensure they are not forgotten, and that people many centuries from now remain aware of the dangers. 

Swiss nuclear power plants have been pumping out radioactive waste for more than half a century. 

A picture shows rock core samples in the Mont-Terri Rock Laboratory. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

Until now, it has been handled by the National Cooperative for the Disposal of Radioactive Waste, or NAGRA, founded in 1972 by the plant operators in conjunction with the state.  For now, the waste is being stored in an “intermediary depot” in Wurenlingen, some 15 kilometres from the German border. 

Horizon 2060 

Switzerland hopes to join an elite club of countries closing in on deep geological storage. 

So far, only Finland has built a site, in granite, and Sweden gave the green light in January to build its own site for burying spent nuclear fuel in granite. 

Next up is France, whose Cigeo project, led by the National Agency for Radioactive Waste Management (ANDRA), plans to store radioactive waste underground in clay. 

“We are awaiting the declaration of public utility but in the meantime we will submit a request for a construction permit,” said ANDRA spokeswoman Emilie Grandidier during a visit to Mont Terri. 

Following the 2011 nuclear accident at the Fukushima power station in Japan, Switzerland decided to phase out nuclear power gradually: its reactors can continue for as long as they remain safe. 

A projected 83,000 cubic metres of radioactive waste, including some high activity waste, will have to be buried. 

This volume corresponds to a 60-year operating life of the Beznau, Gosgen and Leibstadt nuclear power plants, and the 47 years that Muhleberg was in operation before closing in 2019. 

Filling in the underground nuclear waste tombs should begin by 2060. 

“It’s the project of the century: we have carried out the scientific research for 50 years, and we now have 50 years for the authorisation and the realisation of the project,” said Nagra spokesman Felix Glauser. 

The monitoring period will span several decades before the site is sealed some time in the 22nd century. 

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‘It could hit us hard’: Switzerland prepares for impending gas shortage

Switzerland is at risk of a gas shortage this winter and, depending on the situation, restrictions on consumption during the coldest months can’t be excluded.

‘It could hit us hard’: Switzerland prepares for impending gas shortage

Natural gas meets about 15 percent of Switzerland’s energy requirements. It is used mostly for cooking and heating.

Though the country buys most of this energy source through various European distribution channels, almost half of Switzerland’s supply — an estimated 47 percent — is of Russian origin. 

“We are not an island, so the war in Ukraine and the global energy crisis also affect Switzerland. In this context, there is no certainty about what awaits us”, Energy Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said during a press conference on Wednesday.

She added that “the energy crisis could hit us hard. That’s why we are concerned about reserves and preparing for emergencies.”

Economy Minister Guy Parmelin added during the press conference that “today there is a concrete risk of a gas shortage. The problem is the heaters”.

Does this mean Swiss households will have to turn down the heat this coming winter?

The possibility of this happening is not ruled out, but the government has set its sights on switching from gas to oil to avoid shortages. 

First it is up to businesses rather to switch from gas to oil, “and to do so immediately”, Parmelin urged.

“As of today, independently of market prices, we must build up reserves of fuel oil. If everyone waits until the fall, we will have a logistical problem”, he added.

As for households, they “should be prepared to turn down the heating as well”.

In the event of an actual shortage, “consumption restrictions may be ordered, for example restrictions on the heating of unoccupied buildings. The switching to biofuel could be imposed by ordinance”, Parmelin noted.

If the shortage persists, a quota would be implemented. Initially at least, private households and essential services, such as hospitals, will not be affected, but “otherwise there will be no exceptions”.

READ MORE: ‘Very difficult’: Why Switzerland fears a Russian gas embargo

What concrete steps is the government taking to prevent shortages?

Speaking on RTS public broadcaster on Wednesday, Parmelin emphasised that “the role of the State is to guarantee a good supply of gas and electricity to the country. We want at all costs to avoid a disruption in supply, which would have a strong impact on businesses and  would then lead to an economic crisis”.

“We are doing everything we can so that our country can best adapt to this situation”.

In concrete terms, two measures have been taken to build up gas reserves.

One is to set up a physical reserve in neighbouring countries to cover 15 percent of Switzerland’s annual gas consumption. Currently, only about 60 percent of this target is delivered.

The missing part of the supply will have to be purchased from France, Italy and the Netherlands in the form of options for non-Russian gas. The volume of gas provided by these countries corresponds to about 20 percent of Swiss consumption in winter.

In addition, other discussions “and exploratory work to conclude agreements with neighbouring countries are ongoing”.

READ MORE : How would an embargo on Russian energy impact Switzerland?