Site in northern Switzerland picked for nuclear waste storage

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.

Site in northern Switzerland picked for nuclear waste storage
Leibstadt nuclear power plant near Leibstadt, Northern Switzerland. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP

After nearly 50 years of searching for the best way to store its radioactive waste, Switzerland is gearing up for its “project of the century”, entailing burying spent nuclear fuel deep underground in clay.

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

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 in an email, confirming a report by Swiss news agency Keystone-ATS.

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

Nagra has informed the local population directly and is expected to present its proposal to the Swiss government on Monday, Keystone-ATS reported.

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.

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

But 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.

For now, the waste is being stored in an “intermediary depot” in Wurenlingen, some 15 kilometres from the German border.

With the new facility, 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.

France also has plans to store radioactive waste underground in clay.

n Switzerland, 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, followed by several decades of close monitoring.

The site would be sealed some time in the 22nd century.

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‘Restrictions and bans’: What to know about Switzerland’s new energy crisis plan

While the issue of power outages is not new and has been debated by the authorities before, the Federal Council has announced the steps it would take if energy becomes scarce in Switzerland.

‘Restrictions and bans’: What to know about Switzerland’s new energy crisis plan

Officials have been hinting that the much-feared shortage of gas, which is used to generate electricity, is not a realistic scenario for Switzerland.

“For this winter, the good news is that the risk of a gas shortage remains relatively low,” Economy Minister Guy Parmelin said earlier in November.

While Switzerland relies heavily on foreign sources, Parmelin pointed out that “in the countries around us, stocks are between 95 and 100 percent full. The Swiss gas industry has also done its job by reserving its 15 percent [of gas] abroad.”

However, the government is preparing for the “worst-case” scenario, such as a serious energy shortage that would impact private households and essential industries alike. On Wednesday, it announced its plan, which the cantons have to respond to by December 12th.

“If a shortage should nevertheless occur, the Federal Council will regulate the electricity supply by means of time-limited measures in order to preserve the stability of the network and to secure the supply. Each level of measures aims to avoid more serious consequences, which would require more drastic measures,” authorities said.

What steps will the government take?

“In the event of a serious electricity shortage, the measures would be adapted to the severity of the shortage and the concrete situation, before the ordinances come into force,” the Federal Council noted.

First: urgent calls to consumers

In case of an imminent shortage, authorities “would first issue urgent calls to reduce consumption to all electricity consumers,” the government said, adding that “at the same time, the Federal Council could decree initial restrictions and bans on use”.

The Federal Council could decree initial restrictions and bans on use.

“These would be tightened in stages, from the drop in the level of comfort (bans on lighting objects, for example) to more restrictive measures (closure of establishments),” authorities said. 

The government’s goal is to implement measures that target the concrete cases, depending on the supply situation, weather conditions, and the consequences for the economy and the population.

Essential goods and services, however, would be preserved “as much as possible.”

READ MORE: Power outage: Swiss cantons set up plans for emergency services

Second : Electricity quota for large consumers

A more restrictive measure — quotas — would be imposed on consumers with an annual consumption of at least 100 megawatt hours (MWh). The quota would affect more than 34,000 large entities, such as companies, who are responsible for almost half of the current consumption in Switzerland.

“Targeting this group of consumers offers significant savings potential,” the Federal Council said.

The quota would be set for a day or a month, depending on the overall situation.

“For winter 2023/2024, a solution will be developed for companies with sites on different distribution networks, so that they can be subject to the same quota throughout Switzerland.”

READ MORE : What are Switzerland’s new heating rules if there’s an energy shortage?

Third : Load shedding

This last-resort solution is the regulated measure to prevent the widespread network from collapsing and causing a blackout.

However, consumer groups providing vital services, such as power and water supply facilities, emergency response and basic medical care, could be exempted from load shedding to the extent that technical conditions allow it, which would rarely be the case, the Federal Council said.

Therefore, “power cuts would have far-reaching consequences for the economy and the population, and would be accompanied by restrictions with far-reaching consequences. This is why every effort is made to avoid them.”

You, as an individual or a household, can play a part in cutting energy consumption as well. This is how:

What the Swiss government is asking you to do to save energy