How do you construct something in Opalinus Clay and how does this clay rock behave under stress? Engineer Julia Leuthold meticulously calculates the models required to find the answers.

Julia Leuthold, tunnel engineer

People involved in the project of the century

Julia studied civil engineering and obtained her doctorate in the field of rock mechanics at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. We will let her introduce herself here

My tasks as a civil engineer at Nagra are similar to those at university; I didn’t have to familiarise myself with a completely new field. And yet there are differences. Here, we have a clear goal – our project of the century. It is like in any company: if you do not contribute your share of the workload, the company as a whole cannot move forward. At university, on the other hand, the worst thing that can happen is that you ruin chances for yourself. Nagra has a long history. To a young person, this is impressive: to think about everything that has been worked through before and how many reports have already been written to reach the point where we are today. I quickly realised that nothing is left to chance here. However, in underground construction, there are always risks that we have to deal with. Bringing these two worlds together fascinates me.

The siting proposal was very important to the geologists but, for us engineers, the work only really starts now. As Project Manager Rock Mechanics and Tunnel Construction, I am responsible, among other things, for designing stable underground structures. As a team, we determine whether tunnel construction can go ahead as planned from a structural point of view. Together with scientists from the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology in Zürich and Lausanne, I am developing calculation models for this. For example, we have developed a constitutive model with which we can describe the hydromechanical behaviour of the Opalinus Clay. It is important to understand that the Opalinus Clay is very suitable for the emplacement of radioactive
waste, but much more challenging for tunnel construction. In this field, we have worked closely with our colleagues from geomechanics. This crossdisciplinary collaboration works very well, and Nagra has enormous technical know-how. I have a very open-minded approach, which allows me to see the project from different perspectives and helps me learn a lot personally.

"This crossdisciplinary collaboration works very well, and Nagra has enormous technical know-how."

I always want to understand everything for myself. That helps me in my work here. For my colleagues, it might be a little exhausting at times, but my precise approach allows me to notice things that may remain hidden to others. For example, I am very good at grasping theoretical models. This helps us to physically portray processes that we observe. I am a relative newcomer and have less professional experience than my colleagues. This gives me a more impartial, flexible view of things. This works well for a project such as the deep geological repository, since we have never constructed one before. We have to continuously learn and
improve. Moreover, outside Nagra, almost everyone I work with is male. To be young, female and straight out of university did not make my start with the project any easier. By now, though, I can say that I have been able to improve communication and collaboration with our contractors and open up new approaches to finding solutions. Working at Nagra is also great in terms of external impact. What we do is important for society. I started working for Nagra in mid-2021 and would say that, by 2022, I had really arrived, really found my vocation. With my outside perspective and attention to detail, I am trying to improve the project even further.

About Julia Leuthold:

After graduating, she wanted to apply her know-how to a project of social relevance and expand her theoretical knowledge of rock mechanics and tunnelling. Julia found what she was looking for with Nagra and took on the position of Project Manager Rock Mechanics and Tunnel Construction in 2021, where she has been responsible for the Tunnelling Methods and Design Project since 2022. She has one child and lives with her family in Zürich.

Julia Leuthold, tunnel engineer
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