Return home page
Context & Objectives ~ Network ~ Methodology ~ Case Studies ~ Conclusions & Recommendations



This case study was presented by Mr Auguste Zurkinden (Swiss Nuclear Safety Inspectorate: national authorities), Mr Emil Kowalski (GNW: proponent), Mr Peter Steiner (MNA: regional critics, NGO), Mr Thomas Flüeler (KFW - Cantonal Expert Group Wellenberg: advisory to the potential host canton).

The Swiss regulation requires that all waste, including low-level and short-lived intermediate-level waste (L/ILW), should be disposed of in a deep geological repository on the long term. Nagra is the private competence centre responsible for waste management, with a shared participation from the operators (5/6) and the Confederation (1/6), this being responsible for the waste from medicine, industry and research. Nagra first started the site selection process for a long term LLW and (long-lived) ILW repository with a list of 100 sites. This list was reduced to 20 and then 3 sites. After 1985 Wellenberg, situated in the Canton (Swiss member state) of Nidwalden, entered the procedure and, in 1993, came out top of the now 4 priority sites. This direct comparison-and result-is expedient and traceable whereas the inclusion of Wellenberg constituted a divergence from the original selection procedure. In 1988, Nagra announced to exclude long-lived ILW from the inventory envisaged. The 1993 decision was approved by the Federal authorities and expert bodies. In 1994 the siting community Wolfenschiessen voted positively on hosting the company responsible for constructing and operating the repository: GNW - Nuclear Waste Management Cooperative Wellenberg. Although nuclear issues are regulated at the federal level, the canton seized the opportunity provided by mining law for a special underground concession. The mining licence was granted by the Cantonal Government in January 1995. This decision, however, needed to be endorsed by a cantonal ballot. On 25 June 1995 the voters rejected GNW’s application by some 51.9%.

The negative vote of the Canton created a politically difficult situation. From the proponent’s viewpoint, as well as for the Federal level, there was a dilemma: Should a site, likely to be geologically suitable, be abandoned for political reasons? At federal level the submission of licensing procedures to a cantonal say regarding nuclear facilities started to be questioned: Can and should the Federation override a canton using federal law? Could a repository be constructed against the will of the local/regional population even if this were legally possible? Or should the project be adapted and submitted to another cantonal vote? If yes, how should the project be adapted in order to improve its chances in the coming vote? From the opponent’s view “a democratic decision is a guarantee for the better option”.

The reasons for the negative vote were thoroughly analysed. Several initiatives were taken at national and cantonal levels to review the project. It became clear that the safety of the project was not contested at that stage, but the repository concept and the selection process needed substantial corrections. The Cantonal Government of Nidwalden adopted the criticism raised in the run-up to the 1995 vote (which was, by the way, validated by an opinion poll commissioned by GNW immediately after the vote): a stepwise approach and a concept change towards controllability and retrievability.

Thereupon, in 1999, the Federal Government appointed the so-called EKRA expert group who compared the various disposition concepts. In January 2000, EKRA released its report recommending the development of a monitored long-term geological disposal and the continuation of investigation in Wellenberg, with an exploratory gallery in a first stage. After the EKRA Report the Federal and the Cantonal Governments decided to proceed further with the project Wellenberg. The Canton established several conditions to be fulfilled before a mining concession could be granted, e.g.:

• Restriction of the concession to the exploratory gallery,

• Definition of clear negative (exclusion) criteria for gallery results, leading to either continuation or abandonment of the project,

• Adaptation of the repository concept to monitored long-term geological disposal as proposed by EKRA,

• Clear definition of the waste categories to be emplaced (with an emphasis on the “short-lived” character of the repository).

An independent Expert Group (KFW) was established by the Canton in June 2000 to review the work of GNW and its adherence to the conditions set by the Government, i. a., by on-site controlling during gallery construction. The group was funded by the canton with resources provided by the proponent. KFW organised several hearings with the concerned parties and reviewed the thoroughly revised project of GNW. The group considered that, given the existing studies and the work programme on the exploratory gallery, it was possible to step to the next phase since the geological evidence so far was positive. KFW, however, prepared a report on the site selection procedure and put forward a series of proposals to improve the process, ranging from a clear separation of roles for involved stakeholders, funding issues, to transparency, traceability of argumentation, transparent formulation of criteria, controllability and retrievability, and stepwise approach. It also insisted on the need for a back-up alternative option in case of a failure in the single-option process. The federal authorities formulated exclusion criteria to help in assessing the results of observations in the exploratory gallery. The criteria would allow, based on the observations, a decision on whether to continue or abandon the project.

Given this new context the Cantonal Government granted the gallery concession in September 2001. The regional opposition was pleased with the participation of KFW experts who heard them, and reported their independent and critical views. It, however, opposed the government decision on the basis that the site was not providing the necessary guarantees to continue the qualification process. Among the arguments is the fact that because of seismicity a repository should not be sited in the Alps. The funding received by the local community also raised concerns that the population was granted compensation for a risk. Finally the role of Nagra having a leading role in the process was a source of distrust due to historical evidence. An additional matter for argument between proponents and opponents was that the result of the cantonal vote would be influenced by or would influence the oncoming federal referendum on the phasing out of nuclear energy in 2003 (propositions, incidentally, rejected).

The Cantonal Government decision was to be submitted to popular vote a week after this case study presentation. The vote on 22 September 2002 was negative, this time even by 57.7%, and led to intense discussions at local and federal levels on most of the issues presented above. With no thorough analysis at hand, and acknowledging the substantial improvements since 1995 as well as the anti-campaign of fear, one may postulate that four factors played a paramount role in rejecting (as appraised by T. Flüeler and S. Prêtre): 1. The process for the selection of the Wellenberg site was not transparent and presented a hindrance to a well-founded decision because people couldn’t understand “why just here?”. 2. The institutional system with all its traditional rivals was-apart of the expert group KFW-still the same. 3. There was a lack of leadership in political governance, especially at the national level. 4. No tangible benefit in saying “yes” was perceived, and in this situation of doubt it was easier to say “no”. At any rate, the Cantonal Government concluded that, upon this repeated negative vote, Wellenberg is “definitely out” as a repository for radioactive waste in Switzerland. The responsible parties in Switzerland will have to re-evaluate the situation.

Find additional information about this case study


  Last update - February 2005
  Copyright © Cowam 2005 - All rights reserved.
3 rue de la fidélité - 75010 Paris - France - Tél: +33 1 48 01 88 77 - Fax: +33 1 48 01 00 13