Moving closer to finding a solution for deep disposal

Where should radioactive waste be packaged before it is stored in a deep geological repository? Daniela Scherer explains how stakeholders are being brought on board to tackle this thorny question.

Any country whose energy policy hinges on nuclear power plants must, at some point, deal with the disposal of radioactive waste. Previously, waste was dumped in the ocean; now a scientific and political consensus has emerged in favour of deep geological disposal. In line with the Nuclear Energy Act, Switzerland is also seeking long-term storage of radioactive waste in a deep geological repository. However, when it comes to deciding where such a deep geological repository should be built, there are many unresolved questions and much scepticism. Crucial to the decision-making process is not only the consideration of geological criteria, but also the inclusion of any stakeholders who may be affected. Clearly, the chances of successful implementation are higher if the local population, municipalities, cantons and adjacent countries are involved as early as possible.

A deep repository has various surface facilities where nuclear waste is prepared for final disposal. But do all waste treatment steps have to be carried out at the site of the deep repository? Could packaging into the final storage containers take place at another location? This broaches the issue of "burden-sharing", where one region would take the deep repository, another the packaging facility. It’s an exciting aspect for negotiation.

Not another "nuclear" location

In 2020, the federal government set up a working group to address this. Its members were drawn from the three regions that might be affected, the respective cantons, the adjacent German districts, and the municipality of Würenlingen, where the waste is currently in interim storage. We at the ETH Chair of Negotiation and Conflict Management were tasked with presenting possible solutions to the working group and moderating discussions. Our team, led by Professor Michael Ambühl, proposed a comprehensive evaluation scheme, which we gradually fine-tuned with the working group.

First of all, however, two key questions had to be resolved: Where else could the waste be packaged? And, is safety guaranteed when the waste is packaged externally? Input from experts led us to conclude that only one external location made sense - the Würenlingen interim storage facility, Zwilag. After all, the idea was to avoid using a new location for nuclear disposal. It also became clear that a packaging facility can be operated everywhere with the same level of safety. These two findings served as our working hypotheses.

Agreeing on an evaluation scheme

On the basis of this groundwork, we together developed an evaluation grid that allowed delegations to submit their opinions in a structured, comparable way. Using four criteria - load distribution, spatial planning conflicts, synergies and transport - each delegation then assessed whether the packaging of nuclear waste should take place at the deep repository or at the interim storage facility. Ultimately, the individual interests of the various parties became clear in their statements.

The outcome of this procedure was that the delegations adopted a joint declaration which, in addition to setting out the positions of the stakeholders, offers a recommendation for further action. In the declaration, the National Cooperative for the Disposal of Radioactive Waste (Nagra) is recommended, according to the choice of the deep geological repository site, to involve only those stakeholders affected when considering the siting of the packaging facility.

For me, this nicely illustrates how the Swiss approach to participation can be an opportunity. In this particular case, the affected stakeholders, Nagra and the federal government were able to exchange information in a focused way. This example shows how solutions can be reached, even for complex and controversial national tasks, and how ETH Zurich actively participates in addressing current socio-technical challenges.

Dr. Daniela Scherer

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