Das Jahrhundertmagazin
Issue #1 – 2022

«The waste has to go somewhere,» says the woman at the Bachsermärt shop, which specialises in locally grown products. «Besides, our days will long since be over by then anyway,» her husband adds.

Bachs in the Zürcher Unterland (northern part of Canton Zürich) is a picturesque village with many old half-timbered houses and farms situated in equally picturesque rolling hills. The birds are chirping, the sun is shining, and life seems good on this warm spring morning in March. Only the low-flying planes on their way to Zürich airport in Kloten disturb the idyll a little. As does a strange, large, green plastic wall in the middle of a meadow just before the entrance to the village. Behind this wall is Nagra’s drill site –- this final exploratory borehole is to provide information on whether the Nördlich Lägern siting region is suitable for burying Switzerland’s radioactive waste deep below ground.

The idea is absurdly simple. What to do with waste that will remain hazardous for up to one million years? Ideally, not even keep it here on earth. So why not shoot it into space? First, the costs would be astronomical, and second, experience shows that rocket launches can go wrong – and when there is radioactive waste on board, an accident could have disastrous consequences. Dump it in the sea? That was actually done for years. The belief was that if the waste was evenly distributed, it would be diluted to such an extent that this disposal solution would be medically justifiable – but as it turned out, this was not the case. Transform the waste so that it can be used again? This idea is called transmutation but it only reduces the half-life, and that is still centuries long. And no technically successful solution has been found to prepare the waste for re-use. The best idea is quite simply to offset the uncertainties of the future with the tedium of the past. Below the earth’s surface, at a depth of over 500 metres, nothing has changed for the last 175 million years.

The rock that is suitable for hosting a deep geological repository is called Opalinus Clay:

It is shaley and brittle, and you can crumble small pieces between your fingers to make a fine powder. The most important properties of the Opalinus Clay are its tightness and its swelling capacity, which enable it to self-seal cracks and fissures when water enters, thus preventing radioactive particles from escaping.

At the Bachsermärt shop, the first of a small chain catering organic vegetables to woke residents of Zurich (and Eglisau), people are relaxed about the repository. «We see it pragmatically,» says an elderly woman shopping with her husband. «The waste has to go somewhere – I’m sure it will be done properly.» «Besides, our days will long since be over by then anyway,» her husband adds, to which his wife shrugs her shoulders in agreement. They are not the only ones to say this.

An elderly gentleman has already attended information events on the subject and has come to the conclusion that this «is probably the best solution», but he would like his daughter, who runs riding stables, to be able to «dump the animals’ manure in that hole, too», instead of having to spend a lot on re-cementing it. The others laugh. A woman with a pram says she really hopes that the repository will not be located in the Lägern region as she is uneasy about the radiation. And another admits to not really having educated herself yet, «but my intuitive reaction would be: rather not here.»

However, this region has potential, that much can already be said. All three siting regions, Jura Ost, Zürich Nordost and Nördlich Lägern, are potentially suitable. Nagra will announce its siting proposal in the autumn and submit the general licence applications in 2024, but the final decision lies with the Federal Council.

A referendum can be held against granting the permit, but other than that, Swiss voters are only allowed a say in determining the site for the surface infrastructure and in negotiating compensation payments. This is a consequence of the Wellenberg debacle: in the 1980s, the plan to construct a repository for low- and intermediate-level waste in Canton Nidwalden failed due to opposition from the local population. As a consequence, the Swiss nuclear energy legislation was revised, abolishing the cantons’ right to veto the approval of a deep geological repository. Communities, cantons and the general public are, however, cordially invited to accompany the site selection process and to voice their concerns at the regional conferences; regional participation is coordinated by the Swiss Federal Office of Energy.

Nagra also wants the population to feel involved and signals openness. The massive camouflage canvas used to cover the containers at the Bachs drill site is detrimental to Nagra’s efforts – but it was stipulated because much of the region is part of a nature reserve. Clearly, the idea was to at least aesthetically minimise the impact on this unspoilt landscape.

A visitor terrace is open to the public from where visitors can watch long drill pipes disappear into the ground – and, with a bit of luck, see millions of years old rock being brought up to the surface. Once the drill core has been recovered, it is all hands on deck. The drill core is immediately fastened to a long table where several geologists examine it before the rock’s properties are changed by getting into contact with daylight and oxygen. The visitor centre houses rock samples, infographics, explanatory panels and giveaways: bag-sealing clips and a data-protection sleeve for credit cards. Sealing and radiation protection: these gadgets reflect Nagra’s mission in a nutshell.

Nagra, short for «National Cooperative for the Disposal of Radioactive Waste», was founded in 1972 by those responsible for the radioactive waste, i.e. the operators of the nuclear power plants and the Federal Government. The Zwilag interim storage facility in Würenlingen now also belongs to the cooperative. The members of the cooperative finance Nagra and pay annual contributions into the Decommissioning and Waste Disposal Funds, which are under federal supervision. Consumers pay a fee of around one «Rappen» (cent) per kilowatt hour of nuclear energy, which goes into the decommissioning and dismantling of the nuclear power plants and into transport, interim storage and future deep geological disposal of the radioactive waste, as well as into all the necessary investigations.

Giveaways are handed
out at the visitor centre:
bag sealing clips and
a data-protection sleeve
for credit cards. Sealing
and radiation protection:
these gadgets reflect Nagra’s
mission in a nutshell.

After the protests by the population against the Kaiseraugst nuclear power plant in the 1970s, a popular initiative was founded «to safeguard the rights of the people and safety in the construction and operation of nuclear power plants». This led to a revision of the Nuclear Energy Act: since then, new nuclear power plants were only approved if the operators could ensure the disposal of the ensuing radioactive waste – the deep geological disposal project was launched with «Project Gewähr» in 1978. In the 1980s and 1990s, Nagra pursued the goal of constructing a repository in Wellenberg – but against the will of Nidwalden’s residents. They rejected the project in two referendums, which resulted in the Federal Council and the Swiss Parliament amending the Nuclear Energy Act to replace the cantonal veto with an optional referendum for the whole of Switzerland. As a result, in 2031, we will either be able to approve the general licence application for the construction of a deep geological repository in region XY or not – but then we would be back to square one, and the radioactive waste would still be more or less easily accessible at the earth’s surface.

However you look at it, the uncompromising focus on Wellenberg resulted in a massive loss of the general public’s trust in the nuclear energy industry and Nagra. Consequently, when amending the Nuclear Energy Act, the Federal Council also drew up a Sectoral Plan guiding Switzerland towards a deep geological repository. The Sectoral Plan is divided into three stages: identification of six potential siting regions by Nagra and revision by the Swiss Federal Nuclear Safety Inspectorate, ENSI. Stage 2: narrowing down the number of siting regions to three. Stage 3: exploratory boreholes in the three remaining siting regions, announcement of the selected site by Nagra in 2022, submission of the general licence applications at the end of 2024, decision by the Federal Council in 2029. Following this, Parliament will make a statement and, finally, if a referendum is held, Swiss citizens will vote on whether it is a go or a no-go.

Marcos Buser, einer der prominentesten Kritiker des Projekts.

My suggestion would be an intermediate step in the form of a long-term interim storage facility

In principle, not even Marcos Buser would go as far as a no-go, although he is considered one of the most prominent critics of the deep geological repository project. He is a tall 73-year-old with slightly tousled white hair and looks just as you would picture a clever, funny, loving grandfather. His eleven grandchildren are indeed very present at his home in Oerlikon, where he lives with his partner: toys are scattered everywhere, a wooden tricycle is parked in a corner, a high chair stands at the dining table. And then there are a conspicuous number of lamps and objects figuring toadstools. What’s the deal with these toadstools? Buser laughs: «I’ve never really thought about it before, they just accumulated».

Perhaps it is a subconscious preoccupation with toxicity. After all, Marcos Buser has been working in the field of chemotoxic and nuclear waste disposal for over forty years. He was a member of the Expert Group on Disposal Concepts for Radioactive Waste, EKRA, for the Swiss repository project and also worked for the Swiss Federal Nuclear Safety Commission, KNS. The geologist and social scientist became interested in environmental issues in general, and nuclear energy in particular, as a student when the Club of Rome published the report «The Limits to Growth» in 1972.

He became an activist against nuclear energy and protested in front of the Kaiseraugst, Gösgen and Leibstadt nuclear power plants – but unlike many of his fellow campaigners, he was already intensively pondering the question of how to dispose of radioactive waste. So he was given a role that he describes as «frustrating at times and never appreciated»: the opponents of nuclear energy stubbornly clung to the idea that radioactive waste simply could not be disposed of safely, while the proponents and the nuclear power industry were unwilling to accept that their proposed solution had to be revised and improved.

One of the most prominent critics
of the waste disposal project:
Marcos Buser

Mr. Buser, it all sounds quite good to me: we have radioactive waste and everyone agrees that the best solution is to bury it. For that, we have Nagra, whose only task is to make sure that everything is safe. Why should I have a problem with this project?

There are several ways to answer this question. In a nutshell: the first problem is that Nagra is an interest group. In accordance with the polluter pays principle, it is committed to nuclear power.

But that’s how it should be, right? That the waste producers should also dispose of their waste?

Not at all. Of course the waste producer should pay. But the planning, the safety issue – these have to be resolved by an independent body. Who pays the piper calls the tune –an interest group cannot afford to ignore this adage. Therefore, long-term risk problems do not belong in their hands but must be dealt with independently. Secondly, in my opinion, the concept of deep geological disposal, in other words, simply burying the waste, plugging the hole and thinking that’s the end of it, is outdated. Instead, it must be replaced by a concept with a much stronger focus on long-term monitoring and support of such a repository. We have to learn from our mistakes, and a good example is our handling of chemotoxic waste to date. Just about every facility is already in need of renovation; people were wrong in estimating how long chemotoxic waste could be safely stored this way. The lesson we need to learn is: we need a monitoring concept that is designed for the long term.

But does the basic principle of deep geological disposal still hold?

Yes, this is not being disputed. The questions are about the how and the when. My suggestion would be an intermediate step in the form of a long-term interim storage facility that is constructed in such a way that the waste can be retrieved once technology has made further progress, for example, in terms of improved conditioning, which means better waste packaging. All of this under continuous monitoring so that, if we should notice one or two hundred years from now that this isn’t working quite the way we had planned, we can respond.

Do you think that, based on the current state of knowledge, it would be a mistake to construct a repository that we will not be able to access in the future?

Yes, the longer I am involved, the more firmly I believe that it is simply wrong to say that we have the knowledge to implement today’s concept. But we can monitor. Besides, we are still producing waste, and it will take another thirty to forty years before it has sufficiently cooled down to be disposed of it in a deep geological repository. If the operating lifetimes of the Leibstadt or Gösgen nuclear power plants are extended, as is currently being discussed, we are looking at a few decades more. We also don’t know whether we might one day have reactors that can use the waste as fuel – even if this seems very unlikely at present.

Is that your main point of criticism, that it is difficult to predict the future?

Yes, exactly. For example, it took us tens or hundreds of thousands of years of technological development to go from a hand-held chipped stone to a stone axe. There are only a few decades between a Hermes Baby and a laptop. At the rate technology and complexity are evolving at the moment, it is simply absurd to even try to predict where we will be as a human race one hundred years from now, let alone one million years

What does Nagra have to gain from pursuing this concept when so many questions remain unanswered?

The reasons for this are historical: this solution was presented by Sweden forty years ago, and both the nuclear community and society have agreed to pursue it. In the meantime, however, it has become clear that there are numerous problems with it. For example, Morsleben in Germany – the forecast for the stability of the mine proved to be incorrect and water got in. The mine is now being restored, but it is not yet known whether that will be enough. And then, in 2008, it came to light that the operator of the Asse mine had known for decades that water was leaking in but had not reported it, which raised many questions about the management of such facilities as well as the transparency behind it. During the same period, there was an accident at the Stocamine underground disposal site for chemotoxic waste in the Alsace region in France, where waste was simply dumped illegally. This also demonstrated that final disposal in salt is not a safe option. In 2014, there were serious accidents in the USA when drums exploded due to consecutive reactions between the waste and the conditioning mass. I could go on and on.

But I assume that Nagra will consider these mistakes when planning the construction and operation of a deep geological repository, right?

Yes, I am convinced they will. But the problem is that the overall concept has never been questioned, and serious mistakes are always conceptual. The other big problem is Nagra’s dependency on the nuclear industry sector.

In what way?

A good example is the way the research laboratories are organised. For more than 14 years, I led the advisory commission of the Mont Terri Rock Laboratory in the Jura mountains, where the properties of the Opalinus Clay are studied. There, you have the regulators on the one hand, i.e. Switzerland’s supervisory authorities, and on the other hand, the nuclear power industry, in other words, the «Nagras» of the various participating countries. And Switzerland’s Nagra always wanted to be in charge of this research laboratory, meaning that it was situated above those who were doing research in their role as supervisors. And you cannot have supervision from below, in a structure led by the nuclear power industry. That is just wrong. At Mont Terri, with the support of the canton, we were able to wrestle leadership of the laboratory from Nagra again. Imagine, even the Swiss Federal Office of Energy wanted Nagra to be in charge. The roles of supervisor and supervisee were thus completely desecrated. Research and industrial interests have to be strictly separated. We need a completely different culture in research and development, one in which voices are allowed to raise objections and point out problems. Science should never be reduced to: we all agree, now let’s implement and cash in.


What would you do to steer the project in a direction that you feel comfortable with?

First, I would sit down with Axpo, BKW and Alpiq and see what could be done to change Nagra’s status. And I would make it clear to the Federal Government that it is their responsibility to make sure that this is done properly. That would, of course, come at a cost, and Mr. Maurer would have to set money aside for the future, which he would probably not enjoy doing (laughs). Secondly, I would give ENSI a completely different mandate: they should be in charge of the strategic setting of deep geological disposal. Not Nagra. Whoever does the planning also has the power, and when the industry does the planning, supervision will always lag behind. The public sector, as the representative of our interests and those of future generations, must make the strategic decisions. The Federal Government must assume its responsibility. Then I would let everyone involved do their work and plan the way forward, based on the findings to date, because safety is the highest priority. However, I must also say that Nagra, under its new CEO, has taken a more open and transparent course and is increasingly willing to listen to critical voices again.

How do you feel society is dealing with the issue of deep geological disposal?

Society in general has a big problem with waste. People don’t want to think about it; even the authorities in the nuclear power sector show little proactive behaviour there. Social discussions or protests generally only take place when the population is at risk of being affected locally or when the effects of a poorly planned project become noticeable. This is also called NIMBYism: not in my backyard, but other than that, you can do as you please. I can understand that.

How can this be changed?

By seeking even more dialogue with the affected communities. People must be involved in the decision-making process, they must be given rights, for example to choose their own experts, to have a say in technical matters, and they must also take responsibility. The risk factors have to be negotiated, together and transparently, one by one.

Zu den Resultaten

Was sollte das wichtigste Entscheidungkriterium sein für die Wahl eines Standorts?

Repräsentative Meinungsumfragen
aus den Jahren:
  • 2009
  • 2015
  • 2021
Politische Akzeptanz



Barbara Franzen, FDP-Kantonsrätin, Präsidentin der FDP Bezirkspartei Dielsdorf und Mitglied der Regionalkonferenz Nördlich Lägern

Barbara Franzen, Member of the Northern
Lägern Regional Conference:
«People are extremely calm.»

The task of advancing the debate is primarily the responsibility of politicians. Barbara Franzen is cantonal councillor of the Liberal Democratic Party (FDP), president of the Dielsdorf FDP district party and member of the Nördlich Lägern regional conference. In these roles and as a member of the Forum VERA (Verantwortung für die Entsorgung radioaktiver Abfälle = responsibility for radioactive waste disposal), she is committed to keeping information flowing and making sure that opportunities to participate are grasped. With mixed success, as the 57-year-old entrepreneur recounts.

Ms. Franzen, how do you interpret the mood towards the repository among politicians and among the public in general?

Among representatives of the authorities and people involved in the process, I would say: very relaxed and very objective. And among the public, the mood is extremely calm. For many, this is simply not an issue. At community meetings in Niederwenigen, the community president always says a few words at the end about the status of this project, but she does not receive much of a response. At a panel discussion for the local elections, someone asked the candidates what they thought of the repository. All of them had pragmatic answers like «safety first» or «should ours be the selected site, we can deal with things then». Only one candidate replied that anyone who does not express opposition to the repository is not electable. But that was more a general rejection of nuclear power. Most people, however, don’t really seem to know what this is all about.

But not as a result of too little information being made available?

No, definitely not. I think the issue is too abstract for many. The process is too long for people to know where to position themselves. Once the decision has been made, it will certainly come as a surprise to many.

Will people only really get involved if the decision affects «their» region?

I think interest will then primarily revolve around the surface infrastructure, for example, the surface facilities and the ventilation shafts. Things that project concrete images. And then, of course, there will be some who will ask: all right, go ahead, but what do we get in return?

The person at the community meeting who is against nuclear power and therefore also against the deep geological repository – why can‘t you be against nuclear power but still in favour of the safe deep geological disposal of radioactive waste?

The reasons for this are historical and could only be resolved with the Energy Strategy 2050. Before that, opponents to nuclear power always argued that we have to solve the question of nuclear power first, meaning its abandonment, before we can talk about the disposal issue.

Have you always been interested in nuclear power issues?

No, not directly. But my mother is from Schaffhausen, and every time we drove through Benken, I saw these casks that were used for demonstrations. And the issue came up on the national TV news when Germans protested against the Castor transports. There was a certain fascination in watching that. But the reason I’m dealing with the issue now is mainly due to where we are standing here. If I were in Canton Uri, I would probably be dealing with other issues. In general, however, I am interested in sectoral plan procedures, spatial planning and participatory projects.

You are a member of Forum VERA, which critics consider pro-nuclear. Can you tell me why?nd Mitglied beim Forum VERA, das bei Kritiker:innen als atomfreundlich gilt. Können Sie mir erklären, warum?

Well, if you look at the members of Forum VERA, they are rather civic-minded politicians. But in terms of its position, Forum VERA has always simply stated that we will not comment on the future of nuclear power in Switzerland, but want to ensure that the issue of waste disposal is properly resolved. We believe that our generation must ensure that future generations do not have to concern themselves with this. But a colleague on the cantonal council has already accused me of being paid by the nuclear power lobby because Nagra is also a member of Forum VERA. (Laughs) Then I had to tell him, listen, I actually pay a membership fee. And I could also say you are sponsored by KLAR (Kein Leben mit atomaren Risiken = Life without nuclear risks). But that is just part of normal political wrangling.

«A colleague on the cantonal council has already accused me
of being paid by the nuclear power lobby.»

Forum VERA organises information events for secondary school teachers, and you are also school president – do you detect any interest in the topic among young people?

No, very little, unfortunately. Especially considering they will one day be the ones facing important decisions. We can only continue to try creating awareness, to make them understand the processes.

You are an art historian – could art history supply ideas on how to use semiotics to warn future generations about buried radioactive waste?

This is a very exciting topic. Could there be a universal language understood in the future? One quite quickly thinks of pictograms. The likelihood that humanity might still be able to interpret them far into the future is great. That, by the way, is also an excellent way to address the topic in schools!

While Nagra emphasises that all sites are suitable, rumours are floating around everywhere that the choice has already been made – namely in their region. This is also the case in the Zürcher Weinland, referred to as the Zürich Nordost siting region: people there would accept the decision, like it or not. This has been clear for a long time. Still, especially in contrast to the calm in Nördlich Lägern, resistance here is relatively high. This is not entirely without irony: the Weinland region has regularly voted in favour of nuclear power and against environmental bills. At an information event organised by the Federal Government in Rheinau in 2015, an interest group of farmers from the region drove twenty tractors around the multi-purpose building where the event was taking place to loudly honk their horns in protest. In 2018, a menhir was placed as a memorial against a repository in Zürich Nordost, and vigils are held every Thursday between 5 and 6 pm. The initiator and president of the rural interest group opposing a repository («Ländliche Interessengemeinschaft kein Endlager») in the Weinland is Jürg Rasi. He runs the Isehof active stables and fears that radioactive waste below the surface could cause serious damage to the image of agricultural products from the region, as well as risking pollution of the groundwater of the entire region. Because he was not willing to be interviewed for this publication, I confronted Nagra’s CEO, Matthias Braun, with Rasi’s accusations.

Zu den Resultaten

Welchem Ort würden Sie für den Bau eines Endlagers zustimmen?

Repräsentative Meinungsumfragen
aus den Jahren:
  • 2018
  • 2021


Matthias Braun, CEO der Nagra.

Matthias Braun, CEO of Nagra:
«Finding a good solution to a problem is very rewarding.»

Matthias Braun took over as CEO in 2021. This is the first time he has lived and worked in Switzerland since studying geology at the University of Basel. After completing his doctorate, he worked for international oil companies, mainly in the Middle East and the former Soviet republics, but he also spent extended periods in Syria, the Netherlands, Italy and Great Britain. «Coming back appealed to me because a reverse culture shock is one of the largest you can have,» says the 54-year-old. «I loved being a foreigner: you hold on to all the good things and mock the customs you dislike.» He says he was particularly surprised by the friendliness here, that people greet each other on the street – he was no longer used to that after living in London. «The biggest difference, however, is the way we work,» he says. «We immediately record everything in minutes or memoranda, and everything is very process-oriented. In the Arab world, you can still seal a deal by shaking hands. Everything is very formal here. This was evident in the very rigidly hierarchical structure in the organisation. Knocking this down requires a lot of effort.»

Mr. Braun, what tempted you take on this job with its many difficulties at all levels?

Oh, there were actually many things that appealed to me. For example, having overall responsibility for a company, from the menu plan in the cafeteria to the technical implementation of a hot cell. However, the main attraction was that this is a pioneering project: we are doing something here that no one has ever done before. That is an incredible feeling.

Were you not put off by the fact that your job is to get rid of someone else’s legacy waste?

To me, finding a good solution to a problem is very rewarding. Switzerland wants a deep geological repository because that is the best solution. We will do everything we can to implement this mandate as effectively as possible.

You are in charge of a project that you will not see through to the end – how do you feel about that?

This is often the case with large projects, but my aspiration is definitely to one day be able to set foot in this new underground rock laboratory.

How do you deal with the responsibility? If something goes wrong in this project, the consequences would be disastrous. Does that alarm you at times?

Being able to rely on many very competent staff members helps a lot. Some of these people have been working on this project for decades. In other words, as far as scientific facts are concerned, I feel very confident. The rest are socio-economic aspects and for those, I rely on common sense. So far, that approach has always worked for me.

«We have less faith in humanity than in nature, or in the geological conditions.»

Matthias Braun, CEO of Nagra

How do you deal with the concerns of others? Have you developed a certain detachment there?

No, not at all. Concerns and fears are often brought to me and I take them very seriously. And even if I don’t share these fears – as a natural scientist, I believe in facts – I can understand many of them and offer my sympathy to those who have them. I can lay some of these fears to rest through conversation and facts, but not all of them.

What is it like to take over an organisation that itself has some legacy issues, that has been accused of shady business and that does not enjoy much trust among some segments of the population?

I have been confronted with some accusations from the past where I have thought: if this is true, I should be worried. I have only been at Nagra for a year, so I can’t judge everything, but I can promise that there will be no dirty business practices in the future. But you have to bear in mind: there are not very many people in this world involved in this issue – both on the side of the project managers as well as on that of critics. We have all been running into each other on and off for decades – but we are all very well aware of the rules and obligations that come with their roles and they abide by them. Corruption is not an issue.

Mr. Buser is of the opinion, however, that Nagra is not so much the organisation being supervised, as it should be, but is trying to take over the management of this project – which it accomplishes by means of shady deals with the authorities. In his opinion, the public sector should take the lead.

First of all, I would like to state for the record that personally, I have rarely seen that a government anywhere in the world can realise projects more successfully than private companies can. The fact that we are a company organised under private law gives us a certain dynamic, a certain purpose – well, that actually sounds a bit strange, given that we have been at it for fifty years (laughs). To be clear, though: ENSI is the supervisory authority, the Swiss Federal Office of Energy has the lead in the site selection process, and if another authority were in charge of implementation, who would be in charge of whom?

wenn da noch mal eine Behörde die Ausführung machen würde – wer würde dann wen leiten?

Mr. Buser said: Today, at any rate, it’s not ENSI supervising Nagra.

Of course, we perceive that quite differently here at Nagra. For us, the supervisory authority is clearly the supervisory authority – between us, we would welcome a little more freedom at times (laughs). I don’t think there is anyone at Nagra who says «we are above ENSI». ENSI is keeping a very close eye on us, and that is how it should be.

Marcos Buser’s other big point of contention is that he thinks it is wrong to plan a deep geological repository. He would be in favour of an interim storage facility monitored over the long term.

Yes, that is really interesting. I had a conversation with Mr. Buser not too long ago, and that is really the only point where we disagree. But in the end: whether or not this repository will be sealed a hundred years from now or not will be decided by later generations. We are planning everything so that it can eventually be closed – whether that will indeed happen or not is another question.

Why do you still hold on to the idea that it should ideally be closed in 2125?


Because we have less faith in humanity than in nature, or in the geological conditions. A repository that is open and maintained by people is only safe as long as society remains stable. If it does not, a closed repository is much safer. Besides, we do not want to impose the task of maintaining the repository on future generations. We would like to make sure that they will not have to concern themselves with it. What is happening in Ukraine at the moment only reinforces my belief that it is smarter to store radioactive waste deep below ground where it is very, very difficult to access.

As a geologist, you normally feel more at home in the past. What is it like for you to work towards the future?

Well, knowing the past actually helps you to better predict the future. Especially when the future we are talking about makes up a comparatively small part of the past – we know the geological history covering the last 200 million years of northern Switzerland very well, and we only have to look one million years into the future.

So, this is a short time for you? 

Yes, absolutely. Compared to how society can change, these geological processes are quite predictable. Besides, forecasting is geologists’ daily bread, even if their predictions are based on the past and they then have to compare everything with data from the recent past or the present. What we always try to do is fill information gaps in history.

What about the contrast between «stalling for time and waiting for new findings» versus «not wasting any time and constructing the repository as quickly as possible»?

We try to integrate both approaches. On the one hand, there is a consensus that the waste is most safely disposed of below the earth’s surface, which is why we want to move ahead – there is a reason why this has been legally mandated. On the other hand, it is essential to constantly incorporate new findings into this project. Hence the staged approach: first the general licence application, which specifies very little apart from the site and the basic features of the repository. Then the construction licence application. And so on, in ever greater detail. Precisely for this purpose: so that we can integrate the findings of the next years or decades. Just think about how airports used to work twenty years ago: the suitcases were still manually lifted onto conveyor belts after the little slip of paper had been studied. Today, it’s fully automated. Logistics in particular is making such rapid progress at the moment, which is why we cannot afford to define things that will be totally outdated twenty years from now. Today’s concept can ensure that the repository will be absolutely safe, but why should we miss out on many years of development?

Auch Learnings aus Fehlern müssen einfliessen. 

Absolutely, we are in constant contact with our partner organisations, we learn from countries that are already far ahead of us, such as Finland or France. This goes far beyond technology and also includes organisational or institutional issues. There are also areas such as tunnel or shaft construction from which we can learn as well. Asse and Morsleben, for example, have shown us that waste cannot simply be disposed of in old mines – we will not repeat this mistake.

What about learning from your own mistakes?

That is absolutely essential as well. Especially in the case of Wellenberg, it is worth taking a close look at the outcome and analysing what went wrong and what we could have done better. We learned a lot from that, particularly in terms of communication with the population and the authorities.

I would like to confront you with a few accusations made against Nagra by critics: one is that it misuses funds for propaganda purposes, for example, by donating CHF 200,000 per year to Forum VERA.

Well, we do of course donate that money as can be seen in our annual report. However, Forum VERA is neither pro- nor anti-nuclear, but interested in mediating between the fronts. We support organisations that encourage debate because that is important to us. We stand by this

Another accusation: it cannot be excluded that the groundwater might be affected by the construction of a deep geological repository.

These people seem to forget that this is, in fact, our most important, ultimate goal: to prevent the groundwater from becoming contaminated. This is what we are here for in the first place. As far as this is concerned, our interests overlap one hundred per cent. We are convinced that a deep geological repository does not endanger the groundwater – and the authorities share this view. On our website, we explain all our research in detail. Of course, we do not have one hundred per cent certainty. Anyone who promises that is not working scientifically. But we are really close to one hundred per cent.

Corona sceptics, for example, have recently been demonstrating a certain resistance to scientific findings. How can you convince people such as these?

We can only be yet more transparent and more open, offer to talk even more and provide information transparently. And we have to be honest with ourselves and accept that we will simply not be able to convince the last ten per cent of the population. But we always appreciate being confronted with criticism because it helps to make us and our project better.

Nagra has also been accused of being committed to the nuclear lobby rather than to safety.

We can counter this with two arguments. First, ENSI supervises our work very closely. It is not the members of the cooperative who decide on what is safe, but the authorities. Second, the members of our cooperative do not belong to just any companies. The energy companies are largely owned by the public sector. Nagra disposes of the radioactive waste produced by Switzerland, not by some evil corporation. This means that our commitment is to Switzerland – both in terms of safety and costs. And Nagra is neutral in terms of energy politics.

How do you perceive the mood in society?

The whole thing has been going on for a very long time and I notice a certain fatigue. But I am always amazed at how many people attend the regional conferences – on a fine Saturday afternoon, they choose to sit in a closed room and engage in their basic democratic right to participate. That is incredible and probably only possible in Switzerland.

Zu den Resultaten

Welche Aussage würde beim Bau eines Endlagers am ehesten mit Ihrer persönlichen Reaktion übereinstimmen?

Repräsentative Meinungsumfragen
aus den Jahren:
  • 2009
  • 2015
  • 2021
Aktiv gegen ein Lager

Keine Sorge und für ein Lager

Ungutes Gefühl und gegen ein Lager

Ungutes Gefühl, aber akzeptieren eines Lagers

There would not be much to discuss at a regional conference in Würenlingen, says a resident in the Aarepark shopping centre. «As far as we are concerned, they could build the thing tomorrow, no one would protest,» he says. How come? «We have had the Zwilag interim storage facility here for, what, twenty years? Everything is okay, so nobody cares. Besides: if anything were to happen, it could also happen at a nuclear power plant in neighbouring France or Germany and we would all have a huge problem.” An elderly woman remembers that there was definitely resistance when the interim storage facility was planned in the 1990s, but she never took part in it. She had always had confidence that it would be constructed and run properly and besides: «We have to put the waste somewhere! Where will we end up if everyone says: not in my backyard!»

I don’t know what I imagined driving up to such a dangerous place would be like, but it definitely would have been more spectacular than reality: the Zwilag interim storage facility looks like any other company housed in an industrial area in Switzerland. They might as well be making shower heads here. What you see of the interim storage facility is a red brick building adjoined by a large hall. The only thing that really stands out are the many surveillance cameras, fences and barriers. It is only when you are inside that you become aware of the many formalities: badge readers, hand scanners, face scanners and locked doors everywhere.

Geschäftsführer Ronald Rieck

CEO Ronald Rieck makes time to show us around himself. From the roof terrace, he shows us what was not visible from in front: the Zwilag premises consist of a total of six U-shaped buildings. The smallest of these is also the most special: it contains the plasma furnace. Twice a year, radioactive waste is fused with glass at temperatures of up to 5,000 degrees for a duration of around three months. This does not make it less radioactive, but its volume is reduced and it is made suitable for disposal.

I received two microsieverts of radiation. «That’s as much as you would get during a half-hour walk in the Valais,» says Ronald Rieck.

One of a kind, says Rieck with some pride. Why then does only Switzerland have one of these? «What makes Switzerland different from most other countries?» Rieck asks back. I see: when it comes to safety, we are willing to invest a little more than other nations.

From there, we go below ground. Or who knows whether we really are below ground, because without windows, everything feels like a cavern. We change into a white lab coat, helmet, glasses, socks in what I would call a radioactive green and white rubber shoes. Before and after the tour, we are scanned for radiation, and a personal dosimeter, a kind of pager clipped to our gowns, provides us with live measurements of how much radiation we are exposed to. The corridors are as clean as in a hospital, it is quiet and deserted, and red lines guide fully automated, little trolleys that transport the waste. Not at the moment, of course. The halls are separated by locks with vault-like doors, and cameras survey whether the number of people present matches the number of those registered and generally check that everything is going as it should, meaning that there is no sign of trouble.

The colour concept at the interim storage facility is stunning. Each room is decorated differently, pastel tones meet strong, luminous nuances. Vanilla and violet, raspberry and the blue of a misty morning. Colourful but serious. «Imagine what it would be like to work here if everything were grey. Terrible,» says Ronald Rieck. We are scanned a few more times, a few more hand prints are required to open heavy doors, and then we are in the cask storage hall. This is the unspectacular name for the huge hall that houses what is at issue: the containers holding Switzerland’s radioactive waste (minus a few that are still at the nuclear power plants) in various stages of radioactive decay.

There are 70 containers, each weighing around 130 tonnes, with room for up to 200. Some are Castor containers, others were made by other manufacturers, but the principle is always the same: a thirty-to-forty-centimetre-thick base body made of nodular graphite cast iron, nickel-plated on the inside. Depending on the design, longitudinal holes are drilled in the wall for rods made of polyethylene to improve neutron shielding. Some are ribbed on the outside, others are smooth, «and now compare the temperature,» Mr. Rieck invites me. The ribbed ones are cooler to the touch than the smooth ones. «Pure physics,» he says. That makes sense. A larger surface area equals a better distribution of heat.

It is a strange sensation to feel this heat. Its source is not something as familiar as fire or electricity, but radionuclides releasing their energy into the environment. Only thirty to forty centimetres keep me from being contaminated. My personal dosimeter beeps. At the end of the visit, it will show that I have received two microsieverts of radiation. «That’s as much as you would get during a half-hour walk in the Valais,» Rieck explains – because radiation exposure from space increases the higher you are in the mountains.

In general, we are exposed to ionising radiation all the time, wherever we are. We even radiate ourselves – 85 per cent of the radioactivity surrounding us is of natural origin, 14 per cent comes from medical applications and not even 1 per cent can be attributed to other technical sources. To make the orders of magnitude easier to grasp, here are a few examples in the range from micro- (0.000001) via millisievert (0.001 sievert) to sievert: Each year, every resident of Switzerland is exposed to around 5 millisieverts – and according to the law, the additional radiation coming from the deep geological repository that would affect a person living directly above it may not exceed 0.1 millisievert. However, the radiation is not expected to exceed 0.0001 millisievert.

An X-ray of the jaw exposes you to around 10 microsieverts, sleeping next to someone for a year adds up to 20 microsieverts, and a flight to New York around 55 microsieverts. 20 millisieverts is the annual radiation limit for Zwilag employees. From 250 millisieverts, the first clinical radiation effects can be detected in blood tests. 1 to 6 sieverts lead to nausea and vomiting after a few hours, possibly hair loss, but the chances of survival are still good. Above 15 sieverts, there is hardly any chance of survival; above 20 sieverts, the central nervous and cardiovascular systems fail almost immediately and the person goes into shock, has convulsions and loses consciousness. Death occurs after two days at the latest.

Autorin Annette Hug ist fasziniert an dem Thema

«I was fascinated by the idea of a non-religious order»: Annette Hug, author

The creepy thing about radiation is that you cannot hear, smell or see it. If radionuclides were to leak out and reach the groundwater, for example, farmers would not suddenly pull neon-green carrots out of the ground. This, among other things, is what fascinated the author Annette Hug so much that she wrote a novel on the subject. «Tiefenlager» (Deep geological repository) was published by the company Das Wunderhorn in 2021 and deals with the question of how to inform posterity about highly dangerous waste buried in the ground. The idea of an order – alongside various kinds of memorials or, for example, genetically modified cats that change colour when they come into contact with radiation – comes up again and again in this discussion.

The idea is obvious – what are the oldest institutions in the history of mankind? Monasteries. «Although it must be said that even the oldest among them, such as those of the Benedictines or the Shaolin monks of China, have only existed for around 1500 years – which is almost ridiculously short given the time periods involved in this project,» says Annette Hug. But still: orders pass on knowledge in a ritualised and institutionalised way, which has proven to be a relatively sustainable strategy against the ravages of time.

In the novel, five dropouts form the core of the «Working Group on Preserving Transtemporal Competence»: a financial consultant, a nurse from Manila, a nuclear physicist from Russia, a nuclear power plant technician and a French linguist. Although there is no religion involved, the ambience is monastic in the old gravel pit in the Swiss Plateau: studies, martial arts, gardening. This starting point allows Hug to address internationally current issues such as the technical, political and financial feasibility of a repository project, but also to sketch future scenarios in the form of dreamlike or nightmarish excursions by the protagonists.

Even the 52-year-old from Zürich cannot say whether there is a happy ending: «You can read into it what you like. I would tend to say there isn’t one.» Hug has been a freelance writer since 2015, before which she was central secretary of the Swiss Union of Public Service Personnel. She was awarded the Schiller Prize 2022 by the Zürcher Kantonalbank (cantonal bank) for «Tiefenlager».

How did you come up with the idea of dealing with this topic in a novel?

I went on a guided tour of the Mont Terri Rock Laboratory and there someone told us that they were confident that they had now solved the problems for such a repository. What remained unresolved, however, was how people could one day be made aware of the radioactive waste buried there. And that one idea that keeps coming up is that of an order. That struck me as strange – that natural scientists go back to the idea of a monastery. This captured my imagination. Furthermore, I am fascinated by the idea of such a clearly structured life in the midst of uncertainty and unrest. And by the utopia that we are wiser together than on our own. Besides, imagining the «what if» is, of course, a quintessentially literary theme.

It is also the major theme behind the repository project – however, attempts are being made to substantiate this idea using science.

The «what if» also has a political component – for example, Fukushima showed us that Bern did not have an evacuation plan if there were an accident at the Mühleberg nuclear power plant and the wind were to blow east. So there is also a certain amount of denial; people don’t even want to imagine what it could be like.

«This ordeal of almost frantically wanting to do something in the short term but also having to think ahead into the future was particularly interesting to me.»

Did you already think about issues such as nuclear power or radioactive waste prior to writing this novel?

Yes, as a child and teenager, nuclear power was of course a huge topic. We had a nuclear bunker in my parents’ house, there were exercises at school about what to do in the event of a nuclear attack and I was actually quite convinced that I wouldn’t grow old because there would be a nuclear war sooner or later. With the end of the Cold War, all of this just disappeared.

And then you began to do some research for your novel. How did that go?

I found it extremely interesting. The scientific side, but also the institutional side, the question of who is actually responsible for this waste. And which institution should take on this immense, absurd task. As early as the 1970s, an American nuclear physicist came to the conclusion that it should be an organisation that is more permanent than a state. And today we are doing the opposite – the power plants are outsourced or privatised, the owners collaborate on the disposal issue – it looks very makeshift. And with this approach, they want to plan hundreds of thousands of years into the future. This ordeal of almost frantically wanting to do something in the short term but also having to think ahead into the future was particularly interesting to me. I was fascinated by how impossible this actually is but that many people still try it again and again and actually do a good job. My trade union experience certainly played a role in that.

Do you personally think the idea of an order would work?

In brief: no. I don’t think Nagra should found a monastery. (Laughs) But I find some aspects of the idea of an order very important. For example, I became aware that many elements of university life can be traced back to religious orders: lectures, for example. Refectories. Conventions. And I believe that behind all of this is the idea that modern society needs a place that is independent of the political and economic powers to allow for truly free thinking. Monasteries started establishing this place along the lines of «my kingdom is not part of this world» and so on. A counter-world in this world. I find that concept very important.

So it’s really about purely institutional boundaries.

Yes. Questions such as: how do we make the nuclear science community truly independent of the nuclear industry? Or, in even simpler terms, how do we ensure that the Federal Office of Public Health and the cantons are well equipped to carry out independent research on radiation and measure radiation values? Because, and this is what I find most dangerous about the whole thing: it is so unspectacular. As a relatively well-informed layperson, I find a worst-case scenario involving explosions, etc. very unlikely. But a small leak could occur somewhere, someone might skimp on material and radioactive isotopes could get into the groundwater. And then it would take a while to notice an increase in the cancer rate in a certain area. What would follow would resemble the past asbestos issue – decades of litigation until some court confirms that there is a connection, then insurance law becomes involved because it is not obvious which cancer was caused by the radiation, and so on and so forth. These are completely unappealing questions from a literary point of view, but the order in my novel allows me to ask them after all.

The order as intermediary, so to speak.

Yes, but I also found it interesting to think about how monasteries deal with sedentariness. Some people will hole up in castle-like buildings, but there are also some who will say: we need neither a place nor possessions, that’s how we can survive longest. We only exist as a community.

In the novel, these diametric concepts are taken up by contrasting the safest place – where the radioactive waste is disposed of – with downtown Hong Kong, where people meet who have no real home. How did you come up with that?

I had a layover in Hong Kong after a stay in Manila and, while walking through the city centre, discovered all these Indonesian and Filipino women camping there on a Sunday. As domestic helpers and carers, they only have a small windowless room, or none at all, and in order to meet, they go out to a public space. This juxtaposition fascinated me.

How did people react to your novel?

Something I often noticed at readings is the question of the relationship and communication between science and society at large. How to deal with the fact that many people are not knowledgeable enough to make sense of scientific results and thus contribute to the spread of the craziest ideas? This was also a recurring theme during the corona crisis.

The solution?

I still believe that it must be possible to improve the education system so that more people understand what is going on. And, of course, that science finds a way to communicate with lay people without arrogance.

How did you experience this in relation to the repository?

Well, I attended two of Nagra’s information events. I found everything interesting and largely understandable. There were virtual reality experiences and so on, where you could see a repository – which actually has little significance, because you can only really plan a repository when you know exactly where it will be located. This inconsistency made me feel a bit like I wasn’t being taken entirely seriously. I then asked how much a container would radiate in the repository, to which I received the answer: imagine the warmth of a hairdryer. And I was asking for radiation values! I am extremely curious to see how the participatory bodies for the siting proposal will communicate, whether they can find a common language.

Language is also an important point in your novel.

I think this is an essential topic of our time. I realised, for example, that I don’t really understand the concept of «waves». There are light waves, sound waves, radiation waves. The physics book states: «A particle without mass». This contradicts my everyday understanding – if it has no mass, how can it be a particle? I asked a physicist friend how he imagines such a definition and he told me that he doesn’t imagine anything at all, he just uses the information to make calculations. The more complex the situation becomes, the more important it is to find a language that closes the gap between formulas and imagination.und Vorstellungskraft schliesst.

How would you rate your level of information?

In preparation for the book, I looked through an A-level book on nuclear physics, did all the exercises, and would say I am now maybe slightly better qualified to decide which expert I am inclined to believe or not – but that’s all

Do you think the Swiss public is sufficiently informed?


What is your greatest concern about the repository project?

Dass irgendwo gespart wird auf Kosten der Sicherheit.

Yes, that would be unfortunate indeed. However, given the importance of this project of the century, which ranks alongside Switzerland’s rail network or the construction of the Gotthard tunnel, it is hard to imagine anyone having an interest in compromising safety. It is one of the great joint endeavours of our time, involving science, authorities, politics and the electorate equally. If something goes wrong, it will affect us all. Or our children, our grandchildren, or generations of people who will only be born when we have all been dead for hundreds of thousands of years.

The time dimensions, the toxicity of the waste, the emotions involved, the hurdles, everything connected to his project plays a huge role – but so does the promise of success. If we succeed in solving this problem, which has been considered insoluble for so long, there is hope that we can master other great challenges of our time.

Zu den Resultaten

Würde der Bau eines Endlagers Ihrer Meinung nach der Region wirtschaftlich eher Schaden oder Nutzen bringen?

Repräsentative Meinungsumfragen
aus den Jahren:
  • 2009
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  • 2021
Eindeutig Nutzen

Eindeutig Schaden

Eher Nutzen

Eher Schaden

«Dear Humanity One Million Years from Now»

What would you like to share with posterity?

Whether it’s the recipe for the perfect tomato sauce, a declaration of your undying love or a confession – Nagra will store your message to future humanity just as securely as radioactive waste. In one hundred years, before the deep geological repository is closed, these legacies will be publicly exhibited only once (so your descendants, who are yet to be born, should definitely save the date). How will this work exactly?

After a quick check, we will store the data on the Interplanetary File Protocol, the basis for the web of the future. If your document complies with Nagra’s guidelines, you will receive a hash link that allows you to access the content online at any time. Similar to a blockchain, the uploaded data cannot be changed, but thanks to a version control system, updates can be added while the entire history is documented as a smart contract.