Marcos Buser, Geologist and Social Scientist, Switzerland

“Has the nuclear age faded from our memories?”

Marcos Buser, a geologist and social scientist, has been involved in the field of nuclear energy and the disposal of hazardous waste for over 40 years. He was a member of the Expert Commission for Swiss Nuclear Waste Disposal (EKRA) from 1999-2002 and the Federal Nuclear Safety Commission from 2008-2012, and is active in field of remediating landfills and contaminated sites. He has published numerous studies on these subjects.

“For the cover picture of my study on marking disposal sites, I chose a photograph of faded writing chiselled in stone. It reminds me of the First World War and the soldiers along the Swiss border in the canton of Jura. Is this also fading from our memories? The answer to this is important when it has to do with disposal, especially that of highly radioactive waste. Will future generations need a warning to recognise nuclear waste for what it is? Or will we even forget about this over generations? And if the latter is in fact already occurring, how does this happen? Questions upon questions – with speculative answers.
But first it’s necessary to clarify how and why it can even be disposed of at all. I'm in favour of stepping back for a moment and rethinking the entire Swiss disposal project anew. But we can't allow the geological review process to select a site to be affected by this as these should anyhow be sped up. But disposal concepts, underground accesses, or placement and retrieval techniques are not yet fully developed. For this reason, every step should be reconsidered and reviewed, and the results should be questioned once more. In Switzerland we’ve been following a plan for the past 50 years that Scandinavian geologists designed for their crystalline rock but which was not developed for clay or Opalinus Clay, which are now regarded as safer. The Nagra plan also envisages disposal in large containers that weigh 30 tonnes and are difficult to manoeuvre and which are meant to be sunk in 800-metre-long tubes.
If you dismiss the claims made in some Nagra propaganda films, you’ll see that there is no experience when it comes to placing or retrieving the containers. And an analysis of the weaknesses or risks of this disposal concept is still due. For example, it's not clear what will happen if, as a result of construction, water penetrates the 'damaged zone' behind the tunnel walls in the underground disposal. Will the contents of the underground disposal tunnels then be squeezed and squished like a tube of toothpaste? We shouldn’t adapt the rock to obsolete concepts but should instead closely investigate to find out what the rock can withstand and defer to that. A surgeon now works with the smallest possible cuts and no longer with large ones, and with materials that adapt to the body. We have to deal with the rock in an similarly minimally invasive way. We should examine possible alternatives, for example if much smaller and lighter portable containers would be better suited for underground disposal. They could be more easily placed and retrieved as needed, and the sealing technology and waterproof tests would be correspondingly easier.
It’s understandable that Nagra, which is responsible for underground disposal in Switzerland, wants to have a disposal solution as quickly as possible. Pressure is growing in other countries, too. The energy economy has to come to an end at some point as regards nuclear energy. But while it's likely that disposal costs will skyrocket, these should only play a secondary role. It's more important that the safety of nuclear waste disposal is guaranteed, in both the short and long term. As a geologist, I’ve experienced enough failures when it comes to waste disposal. There are no conventional landfills that didn’t leak sooner or later. The symbolic Kölliken hazardous waste landfill in the canton of Aargau is only one of many sad legacies of our industrial society. Even in this case we’ve only been spared for the time being. It costs a huge sum to remediate such contaminated sites these days, and we're all paying for this, especially our children and our children's children. The manner in which humankind deals with waste is a disaster. If I didn’t have any grey hairs yet, they would certainly grow if I think of how we humans deal with our planet.”

Onkalo pilot cave in Finland at final depth (Image: Kallerna)

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Without provoking or causing a scandal, wants to shake things up a bit by encouraging society to reflect on a subject that affects all of us: nuclear power. It is a subject that polarises, turning opponents and supporters into ideologues. And it is a subject that divides the informed and the uninformed in a way that creates intentional and unintentional dependencies. Against the background of the current debates on the 'energy transition', we want to contribute a critical discussion for all those who want to more know about nuclear power. And we want to do our bit to overcome the deep ideological divide that separates supporters and opponents. When it comes to this subject, the truth very quickly becomes relative – or is made relative. You move around in an area where experts, opinion makers, ideologues, affected persons, victims, lobbyists, politicians and world saviours jostle against each other. Everyone should be able to have their say, to tell their truth. The truth of the radiation victims as well as that of the power plant operators, the supporters and the opponents. The second objective of the book is to explore the many facets of truth – and remain receptive to all those who want to make it comfortable for us.

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