Safe disposal of Switzerland’s radioactive waste

We inventory the waste and make reliable predictions for the future, thus ensuring that a deep geological repository will have enough space for all types of radioactive waste.

Disposal – of what?

Radioactive waste mainly arises from the generation of electricity in nuclear power plants. Other types of radioactive waste are produced from applications in medicine, industry and research.

Where does the radioactive waste come from?

Radioactivity is widely used today. The best-known example is the generation of electricity in the nuclear power plants. These generate 33 per cent of all of Switzerland’s electricity (source: Swiss Federal Office of Energy, status end of 2020). Nuclear power plants produce high-level waste in the form of spent fuel assemblies and low- and intermediate-level waste from operation and decommissioning (dismantling). More radioactive waste is produced from applications in medicine, industry and research. This consists almost exclusively of low- and intermediate-level-waste.

Learn more about the waste producers and waste applications here.

Loading a Castor container with spent fuel assemblies below water at the Gösgen nuclear power plant. Photo: Nagra

Types of radioactive waste

For the purpose of simplification, radioactive waste is divided into two waste types:

  • high-level waste such as spent fuel assemblies from nuclear power plants
  • low- and intermediate-level waste, for example from the operation or dismantling of a nuclear power plant (filters, protective equipment).

Both waste types have different physical properties and have to be disposed of in separate facilities, either in two individual repositories at different sites or in a combined repository for both waste types located at a joint site. A combined repository has two separate underground disposal zones for the two waste types. Until a repository becomes operational, the waste is held in an interim storage facility.

Until it can be further processed for deep geological disposal, low- and intermediate-level waste from nuclear power plants and from medicine, industry and research is collected in drums such as these (cross-sectional view).

How much radioactive waste will be produced?

The expected volume of Switzerland’s radioactive waste can be predicted based on Nagra’s inventories. The total volume of high-level waste will amount to around 9300 cubic metres, which corresponds roughly to the volume of eight single-family homes.

Volume of radioactive waste packaged ready for disposal; unpackaged waste figures in brackets. Low- and intermediate-level waste: Approx. 56 000 cubic metres are expected from nuclear power plants and approx. 16 000 cubic metres from applications in medicine, industry and research (including packaging). This results in a total of around 72 000 cubic metres of low-level and intermediate-level waste (forecast figures, as of the end of 2021).

The polluter pays principle embodied in the Swiss Nuclear Energy Act applies to the management of radioactive waste: whoever produces radioactive waste has to safely dispose of it at their own cost.

What is radioactivity anyway?

Radioactivity is a natural phenomenon and is present everywhere – in our air, water, soil and in rock. Our senses are not able to detect it by sight, smell or sound.

Radioactivity can also be artificially generated through human use in nuclear power plants or medical purposes, producing radioactive waste that has to be disposed of safely. The radioactivity continuously decreases with time due to radioactive decay.

Learn more about how radioactive waste can be shielded in a deep geological repository here.

Volumes of radioactive waste

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Radioactivity – What is it?

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Types of radioactive waste

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Where is radioactive waste generated?

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Where is the waste held today?

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Toxicity of radioactive waste

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Cover photo: Boris Baldinger