Radioactive waste burial, Switzerland’s “Century Project”

Posted on Saturday, April 09, 2022 at 08:37

The war in Ukraine demonstrated the dangers of surface storage of radioactive waste.

That’s enough to put Switzerland, which wants to bury its high-level waste deep in the ground, a project at a crucial turning point.

“We are 300 meters underground in a dug laboratory” to study the burial of radioactive waste in the mud, explains geologist Christoph Nussbaum, head of the Mont-Terry International Laboratory, near Saint-Orsan in the canton of Surat.

Three sites in northeastern Switzerland, near Germany, are in a race to receive this waste.

Station operators are expected to announce their preference in September. The government will decide in 2029, but opponents can hold a referendum.

The Mont-Terry Center actually consists of 1.2 kilometers of rock-cut galleries.

The niches, whose walls are about 5 meters high and fixed with shotcrete, house a variety of storage simulations, thanks to the small amounts of radioactive elements monitored by thousands of sensors.

More than 170 experiments have been conducted to simulate the different stages – laying waste, closing galleries, observation – and reproducing all imaginable physical and chemical effects.

– 8000 generations of people –

According to experts, it takes about 200,000 years – or about 8000 human generations – for the radioactivity of the most toxic waste to return to its normal level.

But the researchers, Mr. Nussbaum notes, analyze a storehouse with an estimated duration of about “a million years, as that is how long one must ensure a secure confinement.” So far, the results are positive.

For Greenpeace, Switzerland is moving very fast. “There are countless unresolved technical questions: a guarantee that the system will not release radioactivity, whether in 100, 1,000 or 100,000 years,” points out AFP Florian Kasser, an official within the NGO Nuclear Energy Matters. .

“We put the cart before the horse because without solving many questions, we are looking for sites,” he continues, believing that Switzerland must first decide how to report the site so that it is not forgotten and that centuries of age come aware of the danger.

– Horizon 2060 –

In Switzerland, radioactive waste has been produced for more than 50 years in power plants, managed by the National Cooperative Association for Radioactive Waste Storage (Nagra), founded in 1972 by nuclear power plant operators and the union.

At the moment, they are in an “intermediate warehouse” in Würenlingen, about 15 km from Germany.

Very few countries are in advanced stages of deep geological disposal. Only Finland built a site (of granite), and Sweden gave the go-ahead at the end of January for landfills, as well as granite.

Then comes France, whose project Cigeo, run by the National Agency for Radioactive Waste Management (Andra), plans to store radioactive waste underground in Bure (Meuse), in shale. “We are waiting for the declaration of public benefit, and at the same time we will apply for a building permit,” Andra spokeswoman Emily Grandider explains during the visit to Mont-Terry.

In the wake of the nuclear accident at the Fukushima power plant, Switzerland decided to phase out nuclear power, but gradually: the four used reactors can be used as long as the power plants are safe.

About 83,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste must be buried, including a little high activity. This volume corresponds to the scenario of the operational life of 60 years for the nuclear power plants Beznau, Gösgen and Leibstadt, as well as the 47 years of Mühleberg that were closed at the end of 2019.

Landfill work should start by 2060.

“It’s the Project of the Century: We’ve done 50 years of scientific research, and now we have 50 years to get a license and implement the project,” notes Felix Glauser, a spokesperson for Nagra.

The observation period would span several decades before closing the site in the next century.

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