It was decided that the Swiss nuclear waste repository should be on the German border. Now it is clear which community is hardest hit.

The Swiss repository for nuclear waste is to be built in the immediate vicinity of the German municipality of Hohentengen in Baden-Württemberg. The location was one of three possible locations, and that alone caused a stir in Hohentengen years ago. “Switzerland decides to leave its radioactive waste in Switzerland and almost throws it at our neighbors’ feet,” said a local councilor at a meeting in Hohentengen in 2016.

The selected area Nördlich Lägern is a few hundred meters behind the border, said the mayor of Hohentengen, Martin Benz, the German Press Agency. “The train station, which could be used for arrival and departure, is a few hundred meters from our residential areas. If the nuclear waste transport comes by road: that’s also only 850 meters away.”

On the one hand, the earthquake probability must be as low as possible, on the other hand, the stone in the subsoil must have certain properties. In Switzerland, only the Opalinus Clay is suitable for storage. “The Opalinus Clay is dense, can seal any cracks itself and binds radioactive particles to itself,” said the Swiss National Cooperative for the Disposal of Radioactive Waste (Nagra). “In this way it locks in radioactive substances in the long term.” These requirements only exist in the border area.

“It is also in our interest that the Swiss waste is stored safely,” says Martin Steinebrunner from the German Coordination Office for Swiss Deep Repository (DKST) at the dpa’s Hochrhein-Lake Constance regional association. “If the safest place is a few kilometers from the border, we accept that. We also have the Swiss nuclear power plants near the border. It is a gain in security when everything is stored.”

The highly radioactive waste from nuclear power plants, medicine, industry and research totals 9300 cubic meters. According to Nagra, this corresponds to the volume of around eight single-family houses. In addition, there are around 72,000 cubic meters weak-? and intermediate radioactive waste. The four remaining Swiss nuclear power plants may be operated as long as they are safe. That may go as far as the 2040s.

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Radiation can destroy body cells, including those in the blood, skin and thyroid. Leukemia, thyroid and lung cancer are among the possible late effects. There are technical and natural barriers in the camp to prevent radioactivity from escaping. The material is embedded in uranium oxide or glass and packed in thick-walled steel containers or in drums solidified in cement. The storage tunnels are filled with bentonite or cement mortar. The tunnels are hundreds of meters deep. “The required confinement time is about 200,000 years for high-level waste and for low-? and intermediate-level waste around 30,000 years,” says Nagra.

It is not yet known how the material will be transported to the repository. Nagra wanted to comment on Monday. The material is to be packaged for final storage at the current interim storage facility for nuclear waste in Würenlingen, around 15 kilometers south of the German municipality of Waldshut-Tiengen. A “hot cell” has to be built there, a high-security building.

“We have drinking water fountains everywhere, we have the Aare and Rhine nearby. The question of drinking water protection is a major concern of the population,” says Steinebrunner.

Nagra intends to submit a building application by 2024, which the government and parliament will decide on. Then there should be a referendum. If construction is not rejected, work is scheduled to begin in 2031. The multi-year emplacement would begin around 2050. The camp would be monitored for decades and finally sealed around 2125.

“When negotiating compensation payments, we want to be appropriately involved, both in the negotiations and in the outcome,” says Steinebrunner. Mayor Benz says that Hohentengen will insist that Swiss communities be given the same compensation.

In Germany, 54 percent of the area is still designated as possible locations. Almost all federal states are affected. The decision is expected to be made in 2031, and the camp is also scheduled to start operations around 2050. Finland is the furthest along: storage in a repository for nuclear waste under the island of Olkiluoto in the south-west of the country is to begin as early as the mid-1920s.