Switzerland wants to build its nuclear waste repository in Nördlich Lägern. Two kilometers away is the German municipality of Hohentengen. Its citizens are angry, afraid – and feel overwhelmed.
Martin Benz was just opening the wine festival when there was unrest in Hohentengen. Why did it hit us of all people?, the residents of the small border community wanted to know. What does Nagra’s announcement mean?
Nagra stands for “National Cooperative for the Disposal of Radioactive Waste” – the organization that takes care of the safe disposal of nuclear waste in Switzerland.
Benz first had to sort himself out, because even the mayor of the town of 3,700 felt overwhelmed. On that wine festival Saturday, it was announced that Switzerland wants to build its nuclear waste repository in Nördlich Lägern.
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The proposed site is so close to Hohentengen that some residents can see the area by looking out the window. “I myself knew about the plans on Wednesday, but I wasn’t allowed to comment on them until Monday,” says Benz in an interview with FOCUS online.
The advance of Nagra caught him “unnoticed”, as he says. Now many people in Hohentengen are unsettled, angry and afraid. Ahead of soon living near the repository. Of the fact that the value of their properties will drop as soon as they officially live in the nuclear waste catchment area.
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Above all, they do not understand why suddenly radioactive waste should be stored near the Baden-Württemberg municipality. “Nuclear waste is there, it has to be disposed of in the safest place, we all agree on that,” says Mayor Benz.
And if that is Nördlich Lägern, then you support the decision. However, a report from 2015 upsets him and many people from Hohentengen.
At that time, Nagra considered the area as a nuclear waste repository to be rather undesignated and did not want to investigate it further. From a structural point of view, she saw clear disadvantages and assessed the space available for the construction of the storage facility at a depth of 600 to 700 meters as too small.
“I remember the wording clearly. Every expert advised against the location, it said,” says Benz. But after the Swiss nuclear supervisory authority intervened, Nördlich Lägern returned to the repository race.
Subsequent tests showed that the rock strength was twice as good as elsewhere and that the decision in 2015 was “too cautious”, said Nagra boss Matthias Braun at a press conference on Monday.
According to him, the rock in Nördlich Lägern is not only very dense and binds radioactive materials like a magnet. It also has another key benefit: “If it breaks, it heals itself.”
So there is an explanation for Nagra’s sudden change of heart. For many people, however, it is not enough to accept Nördlich Lägern as the new favorite repository.
Mayor Benz, for example, finds that the whole thing has a “bad aftertaste”. He wonders whether there are political motives behind the decision, whether Nördlich Lägern was only chosen because the resistance in the Swiss border region is lower than elsewhere.
In addition, Nagra is financed by Swiss nuclear power plant operators. How independent can such a body be?
Even the local initiative “Nördlich Lägern ohne Tiefenlage” cannot really understand the change of heart. “What pressure has been rebalanced to and different rules apply? How credible is an organization that changes its decision 180 degrees? “, says a short statement by the Swiss group, which is available to FOCUS online.
Even experts are critical of the Nagra proposal. The Swiss geologist Marcos Buser, for example, believes that the selection process “was not conducted properly” and suspects that there were “hidden controls”. He can understand the concerns of the population.
“How do you believe a company and a state that keeps talking behind the scenes and making ‘packages’ that are never fully transparent?” he asks.
But Buser also finds the construction of the repository in Nördlich Lägern problematic for other reasons. The area overlies “a trough cut deep into the crystalline basement that contains resources such as coal and possibly natural gas,” he explains.
A fact that should actually disqualify it as a repository site, at least in Buser’s eyes. Because not only geological criteria such as the water flow of rocks and the stability of formations play a role in the question of where nuclear waste may be stored.
“The existence of mineable resources and the use of deep underground is also an important criterion,” he says. Other experts react more cautiously when asked about Nagra’s approach.
Michael Sailer, who was a member of the German Repository Commission from 2014 to 2016, can basically understand that a rejected site is examined more closely again. Especially when experts criticize the veto.
“But I would like to take a closer look at all the documents in order to be able to really understand Nagra’s change of heart,” he says in an interview with FOCUS online. It is clear to Sailer that Nagra must justify its decision in a watertight manner. “This is absolutely necessary, especially because the local population is unsettled.”
Insecure – and excluded from Nagra’s decision-making process, at least as far as the German side is concerned. Because the people of Hohentengen have been affected by the finding of a repository for years, but are ultimately not allowed to have a say.
“The effects of a repository don’t stop at the border,” says Mayor Benz. He and his community are now counting on the German authorities to do something. “Our hands are tied,” he says.
In fact, the Swiss Deep Repository Expert Group (ESchT) is commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment to provide an assessment of how plausible Nagra’s site proposal is. After all, the German residents would be burdened by a nuclear waste repository.
The people of Hohentenen are already worried about health, tourism and their homes. “Who wants to go on vacation near a nuclear waste repository?” A resident told the “Südkurier”.
Another fears that real estate prices will fall and that Hohentengen will not only become a Swiss nuclear dump. “It is possible that a German repository in the region will come closer as a result,” he told the newspaper. The choice of location is “incomprehensible” for the local residents.
However, according to the expert Buser, a repository is probably not dangerous for the local population. Provided that the nuclear waste containers are “properly manufactured, loaded and sealed”. Accidents could occur again and again. Because the fuel elements are to be packed in the interim storage facility in Würenlingen, the risk is low.
In addition to Hohentengen, there are five other German communities that would be in the immediate vicinity of the planned repository. The German Ministry of the Environment announced that Switzerland was in principle prepared to make compensation payments.
However, there are still a number of things that need to be clarified before a final repository is built in Nördlich Lägern. By 2024, Nagra intends to prepare general license applications for the repository and the fuel element packaging facility and then submit them to the federal government.
Only when the applications have been examined by the authorities and expert committees, when the Federal Council and Parliament have agreed to this and when the request has survived a possible referendum can construction of the repository begin.
It is estimated that this will not happen before 2031. Even Nagra writes that the first waste could be stored “in 30 years at the earliest”. So Mayor Benz is not entirely wrong when he says: “The topic will keep us busy for quite a while.”