Matthias Braun brought a piece of Opalinus clay with him. The rock is incredibly dense, he says, it binds radioactive materials like a magnet, and if it does break, it heals itself - ideal geological conditions for storing nuclear waste. Matthias Braun is the head of the National Cooperative for the Disposal of Radioactive Waste (Nagra), the Swiss association formed by the producers of nuclear waste in 1972. By law, Nagra is responsible for the search for suitable sites and the construction of a repository for Switzerland's radioactive waste.
On Monday morning, Braun sits with representatives of the Swiss Federal Office of Energy, the nuclear supervisory authority and canton politicians in the media center in Bern and justifies the spectacular decision that had already become known on Saturday: Nagra has committed itself to a repository site. The most suitable area for a deep geological repository is therefore "Nördlich Lägern", an area of around 123 square kilometers between the cantons of Aargau and Zurich, only a few kilometers from the German border. "It was a clear decision: the geology spoke," said Braun. North Lägern offers "the best security reserves".
The decision made wavesAfter all, apart from Finland, there is still no country that has decided on a repository site, let alone put a deep repository into operation. However, the news from Switzerland should also be interpreted with caution. Although Nagra's decision is an important step in the process of creating the repository, it is basically just a suggestion that is far from definitive.
review by the end of the decade
In the next two years, Nagra has to prepare its application for a permit for the construction of the repository and submit it to the federal administration, only then will the state security authorities examine it - incidentally with the participation of German experts, as the representative of the Federal Nuclear Inspectorate emphasized on Monday. This review is expected to last until the late 2020s.
Then the Swiss government has to approve the request and the parliament has to approve this decision. However, as always in Switzerland, the people have the last word before a possible start of construction. If there are enough opponents, they can push through a referendum - that would be around the year 2031. Only when today's decision has cleared all these hurdles will the actual construction of the deep repository with its surface structures and the fuel element packaging plant in Würenlingen take place. "Based on current planning, the warehouse could go into operation from 2050", according to the Federal Office of Energy. So many subjunctive moods, and the possibility that Switzerland will have to start the search all over again in a few years.
And there are more question marks. In 2015, Nagra had removed Nördlich Lägern, where the Opalinus Clay layer is particularly deep, from the shortlist of locations - because of "construction problems", as it was said on Monday. After the intervention of the affected cantons and the nuclear supervisory authority, the step was revised again. The fact that Nördlich Lägern was selected from the last three possible locations is a concern for those affected skepticism and distrust. Nagra boss Braun tried to dispel the safety concerns on Monday: The deferral in 2015 was "excessively cautious", the intervention of the authorities finally made it possible to determine the high quality of the Nördlich Lägern site.
Old water in the stone
It is now clear: in Nördlich Lägern there is not just a sufficiently thick opalinus clay layer. It is also the furthest removed from what may be turbulent processes on the surface. In addition, the oldest water trapped in the stone was found there. "Nature has already tested the enclosure for us there," says Braun.
The scientific details of the decision are now being independently reviewed - by both countries concerned, by the way. The German Ministry of the Environment had already announced on Sunday that it would independently evaluate the Swiss plans. On Monday, a government spokeswoman in Berlin spoke of the "good integration so far" of the German side in the Swiss selection process, which one hopes will continue.
A representative of the Ministry of the Environment emphasized that there had been good exchanges with Switzerland for many years. The latest decision will be checked for plausibility. It is also now a matter of talking to the Swiss about "compensation payments for regional development", since the communities on the German side would also be "heavily burdened" both in the construction and in the operational phase. Such compensation payments were also discussed at the press conference in Bern. Nagra will now negotiate this with the affected regions and communities, it said.