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ENERGY

MAP: Where has Switzerland chosen as the site for nuclear waste?

Switzerland announced the place where it intends to dump radioactive waste for centuries to come. Here's where it is and why it's so controversial.

MAP: Where has Switzerland chosen as the site for nuclear waste?
(Rendition: National Cooperative for the Disposal of Radioactive Waste (Nagra))

Swiss authorities have selected a site in northern Switzerland, not far from the German border, to host a deep geological storage repository for radioactive waste, they said Saturday.

The announcement immediately drew criticism and Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he would “seek talks” with the neighbouring country as a facility so close to the border would “heavily burden” communities on the other side.

The organisation in charge of handling the country’s radioactive waste said it had decided that the Nördlich Lägern area was the best of three sites it had been considering for the underground storage facility.

READ ALSO: Site in northern Switzerland picked for nuclear waste storage

We “chose Nordlich Lagern as the safest site for a deep geological repository,” Felix Glauser, a spokesman for the National Cooperative for the Disposal of Radioactive Waste (Nagra), told AFP.

“Extensive investigations have shown that Nordlich Lagern is the most suitable site and has the largest safety reserves,” he added.

A map shows the site chosen for nuclear waste in Switzerland. (Photo: National Cooperative for the Disposal of Radioactive Waste (Nagra))

Where is the location?

The site in Nördlich Lägern is located in the Zürcher Unterland (lowlands in the northern section of Canton Zürich) in Northern Switzerland, according to the Swiss government.

It comprises twelve municipalities in the canton of Zurich and three in the canton of Aargau, with a population of around 52,000 and over 123 square kilometres.

The deep geological repository’s underground and surface infrastructure facilities will one day be located on their territory.

The siting region also includes more than 30 other municipalities, including those in the neighbouring cantons of Aargau and Schaffhausen and Germany, which are indirectly affected by a possible deep geological repository.

Why is it the best place?

According to the National Cooperative for the Disposal of Radioactive Waste (Nagra), the most important natural barriers to containing radioactive waste are “stable and dense rock layers”. These should prevent radioactivity from escaping.

“In Nördlich Lägern, the Opalinus Clay is a rock that is practically impermeable to water and seals itself when it comes into contact with water.”, the authorities explained.

The Nagra found this geological barrier to be the best of all sites it had explored to contain radioactive waste. It also found that the region has the highest “long-term stability of the geological barrier”, as the clay lies at a depth of between 800 and 900 metres.

READ ALSO: Germany seeks Swiss nuclear waste talks after storage decision

The authorities said: “Extensive investigations have shown that, in Nördlich Lägern, the quality of the rock is highest and it best confines the radioactive waste – not only today but also in the distant future.”

“While the landscape at the earth’s surface will evolve, the repository deep underground in Nördlich Lägern will be protected as the rock is most stable there.”

Why is it controversial?

Almost anything dealing with energy and, in particular, nuclear power will end up being controversial in Europe, especially as the continent faces an energy crisis and focuses on transitioning to cleaner energy sources.

However, the fact that the site is near the German border has made it even more controversial, as Germany has been intent on transitioning away from nuclear power for years.

While the nuclear storage facility would be “a few kilometres” away from the border, certain “surface buildings” would only sit two kilometres from German territory, a spokesperson for the German environment ministry said.

READ ALSO: Swiss government confirms ‘sharp increase’ in electricity prices

Germany would have to discuss the decision “through the usual channels with all those responsible in the Swiss government”, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said at a press conference in Berlin on Monday.

Like Germany, the Swiss resolved to exit gradually from nuclear energy following the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan.

A final decision is not due until 2029.

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ENERGY

How European countries are spending billions on easing energy crisis

European governments are announcing emergency measures on a near-weekly basis to protect households and businesses from the energy crisis stemming from Russia's war in Ukraine.

How European countries are spending billions on easing energy crisis

Hundreds of billions of euros and counting have been shelled out since Russia invaded its pro-EU neighbour in late February.

Governments have gone all out: from capping gas and electricity prices to rescuing struggling energy companies and providing direct aid to households to fill up their cars.

The public spending has continued, even though European Union countries had accumulated mountains of new debt to save their economies during the Covid pandemic in 2020.

But some leaders have taken pride at their use of the public purse to battle this new crisis, which has sent inflation soaring, raised the cost of living and sparked fears of recession.

After announcing €14billion in new measures last week, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi boasted the latest spending put Italy, “among the countries that have spent the most in Europe”.

The Bruegel institute, a Brussels-based think tank that is tracking energy crisis spending by EU governments, ranks Italy as the second-biggest spender in Europe, after Germany.

READ ALSO How EU countries aim to cut energy bills and avoid blackouts this winter

Rome has allocated €59.2billion since September 2021 to shield households and businesses from the rising energy prices, accounting for 3.3 percent of its gross domestic product.

Germany tops the list with €100.2billion, or 2.8 percent of its GDP, as the country was hit hard by its reliance on Russian gas supplies, which have dwindled in suspected retaliation over Western sanctions against Moscow for the war.

On Wednesday, Germany announced the nationalisation of troubled gas giant Uniper.

France, which shielded consumers from gas and electricity price rises early, ranks third with €53.6billion euros allocated so far, representing 2.2 percent of its GDP.

Spending to continue rising
EU countries have now put up €314billion so far since September 2021, according to Bruegel.

“This number is set to increase as energy prices remain elevated,” Simone Tagliapietra, a senior fellow at Bruegel, told AFP.

The energy bills of a typical European family could reach €500 per month early next year, compared to €160 in 2021, according to US investment bank Goldman Sachs.

The measures to help consumers have ranged from a special tax on excess profits in Italy, to the energy price freeze in France, and subsidies public transport in Germany.

But the spending follows a pandemic response that increased public debt, which in the first quarter accounted for 189 percent of Greece’s GDP, 153 percent in Italy, 127 percent in Portugal, 118 percent in Spain and 114 percent in France.

“Initially designed as a temporary response to what was supposed to be a temporary problem, these measures have ballooned and become structural,” Tagliapietra said.

“This is clearly not sustainable from a public finance perspective. It is important that governments make an effort to focus this action on the most vulnerable households and businesses as much as possible.”

Budget reform
The higher spending comes as borrowing costs are rising. The European Central Bank hiked its rate for the first time in more than a decade in July to combat runaway inflation, which has been fuelled by soaring energy prices.

The yield on 10-year French sovereign bonds reached an eight-year high of 2.5 percent on Tuesday, while Germany now pays 1.8 percent interest after boasting a negative rate at the start of the year.

The rate charged to Italy has quadrupled from one percent earlier this year to four percent now, reviving the spectre of the debt crisis that threatened the eurozone a decade ago.

“It is critical to avoid debt crises that could have large destabilising effects and put the EU itself at risk,” the International Monetary Fund warned in a recent blog calling for reforms to budget rules.

The EU has suspended until 2023 rules that limit the public deficit of countries to three percent of GDP and debt to 60 percent.

The European Commission plans to present next month proposals to reform the 27-nation bloc’s budget rules, which have been shattered by the crises.

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