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Nuclear waste still looking for a home

What to do with all the radioactive waste? Keystone

The search for a place to store Switzerland's nuclear waste has already taken 30 years, and it looks like there is still no end in sight.

With no suitable location at home for highly radioactive waste – mostly spent fuel rods – the Swiss might even consider shipping the problem abroad.

Since February 2005, Switzerland’s nuclear energy law has called for all waste to be stored in the country if possible. In the face of opposition from cantons, the legislation gave the final say to the government, which can decide where to build a storage facility.

Swiss Energy Minister Moritz Leuenberger has set up an advisory committee to find a home for a nuclear dump. He hopes it will help find a solution that has widespread support.

At least three sites are now under consideration – in northern Switzerland.

But a proposal to set up an underground nuclear waste facility near Zurich has already met with criticism from locals as well as Switzerland’s neighbours Germany and Austria.

Long process

But time might be against them. Parliamentarians recently called for a quick decision about the location of a waste site.

For his part, Leuenberger has warned that it may not be possible to move quickly on the issue. Discussions about a location will begin at the earliest in the second half of next year, and a decision is not expected before 2010.

The energy minister says that if further evaluations are required before reaching any agreement, this deadline could extend beyond 2014. Werner Bühlmann, deputy director of the Federal Energy Office, thinks a site might not even become operational before 2040.

Swiss nuclear specialists are considering an international option to store radioactive waste. They are taking part in a 14-nation European Union research project known as SAPIERR (Support Action: Pilot Initiative for European Regional Repositories).

According to project administrator Charles McCombie, a number of sites are under consideration. “There has been no location chosen so far,” he told swissinfo.

It was revealed in 2004 that one such possible site could be in Russia.

“Russia has said it is interested in storing nuclear waste, which it would add to its own substantial stockpile,” McCombie told Swiss public radio at the time, adding this would require a higher level of surveillance than is currently the case.

No Russian option

Today, it’s a different story.

“SAPIERR has nothing to do with Russia,” said McCombie. “We want to find a solution within the Union, and EU policy means Russia was never an option.”

McCombie added that Switzerland has officially expressed interest in an international waste facility for spent nuclear fuel.

But Swiss officials say that there has been no political involvement.

The authorities are not taking part in SAPIERR, where the Swiss are represented by the National Cooperative for the Disposal of Radioactive Waste (Nagra), Colenco Power Engineering and the Association for Regional and International Underground Storage (Arius).

Instead, the Swiss are following legal guidelines by focusing on domestic solutions, according to Michael Aebersold of the Federal Energy Office. “Our goal is to find a location in Switzerland,” he told swissinfo.


With the recent extension of the EU, there are now 13 member states dependent on nuclear power that all need to coordinate their radioactive waste management.

“Of course it would probably work out cheaper to use one or two waste facilities abroad,” admitted Aebersold. “But if Switzerland was to adopt such a solution, there would have to be strict security measures and the local population’s rights would have to be respected.”

Fears of nuclear terrorism have convinced many states to consider international management of radioactive waste.

“A multilateral solution has become more acceptable since September 11,” said McCombie. “Making sure 29 nuclear waste facilities are secure is certainly harder than when you are dealing with just one or two.”

swissinfo, Jean-Michel Berthoud

There are four nuclear plants in Switzerland, with a total of five reactors.
The first nuclear plant – Beznau – went online in 1969.
Nuclear energy accounts on average for 38% (45% in winter) of Swiss electricity production.
Switzerland has no storage facility for highly radioactive waste.

Swiss legislation on nuclear energy calls for radioactive waste to be permanently stored in Switzerland.

Part of the spent fuel from Swiss nuclear reactors is reprocessed in La Hague (France) and Sellafield (Britain).

Switzerland must take back the reprocessed fuel – around 12 cubic metres – which is currently stored at a temporary facility in canton Aargau.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR