Swiss Nuclear Democracy

Saturday, January 31st, 2015

Switzerland generates a little more than 36% of its power through nuclear energy, at four separate plants which collectively host five operational reactors. Therefore it has a spent-nuclear-fuel problem, and a recent piece picked up by @news_suisse (with its own atomic-orange color-scheme) shows that country’s remarkable approach in addressing in particular the need for “deep geological repositories” to hold that stuff for eons:

The key phrase here is en lice. In French it translates to “in contention,” so the message is that only the two locations named (namely Jura-East and Zurich-Northeast) have made the cut to be considered further as long-term nuclear waste sites.

Just consider the value-judgment in plain sight here: “in contention” – those two places have beaten off four other candidates to make this short-list. That is, they actively want to host the sort of nuclear-waste site which in most other countries – certainly the US – inspires the most virulent of NIMBY (“Not In My BackYard”) sentiments!

Bizarre! Yet such has been the course of deliberations of Nagra, a company established collectively back in 1972 by all Swiss nuclear-waste producers for handling the disposal problem – and, naturally, subject to close governmental oversight. Even stranger, I combed this piece for some indication as to just what is in it for the winning site (or sites; it could be both), maybe some sort of generous financial remuneration to the local government – but nothing! Nothing but public frustration on the part of the losers already cut out of the competition:

The discontent [over Nagra’s pre-selection] is already palpable. The president of the Committee of Cantons, the Zürich State Counsellor Markus Kägi, could not hide his surprise at seeing only two sites retained.

Nagra boss Thomas Ernst justified his recommendations, emphasizing that only scientific and technical criteria were taken into consideration. “Reflections of a political or social order played no sort of role.”

But maybe there are a few other clues about what is going on. For one thing, this is a really long-term project: the Swiss Federal Council will make the definitive choice only in 2027. Then, and only then, will it be submitted to parliament, and possibly to one of those famous Swiss referenda. Clearly, this has been a technocratic exercise so far; the NIMBY-storm still has 12 years to develop.

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