Swiss Nuclear Waste Governance: Political Processes, Constructive Opposition, and the Role of Affectedness

Essay by Peter Adler
Photographs by Rony Emmenegger
February 20, 2023

On September 12, 2022, the National Cooperative for the Disposal of Radioactive Waste (Nagra) held a press conference in Bern, officially announcing the site most suitable for building a deep nuclear waste repository. To the surprise of many, the decision was made in favor of Nördlich Lägern (NL) in the municipality of Stadel, canton of Zurich.

This site selection marked a key moment in the third stage of the Deep Geological Repositories Sectoral Plan, as the authorities discarded the other two remaining options, Jura Ost (JO) and Zürich Nordost (ZNO). Back in 2011, the Swiss Federal Council had confirmed six potential areas suggested by Nagra, thus concluding the plan’s first stage. Stage two was meant to narrow it down to at least two sites by 2018, but the leak of a confidential Nagra file memo in 2012 led to a major controversy. The document allegedly revealed that the choice had already been made in favor of ZNO, which Nagra quickly denied, claiming it was only a hypothetical reference scenario. However, the debate would not end there because an official announcement in 2015 again only included the two sites JO and ZNO – just like the leaked memo had. The Swiss Federal Nuclear Safety Inspectorate (ENSI) and the affected cantons Zurich and Aargau were unhappy with this selection and NL was later re-included after pressure by the Zurich authorities.

Based on this convoluted background, it is understandable why many observers assumed that ZNO would be selected on September 12th. Nuclear waste has been a concern in this region, also referred to as Weinland (the wine country), since long before the Sectoral Plan even existed: Nagra drilled in the village of Benken for the first time in 1994. As a reaction to the looming repository plans, locals formed the communal opposition group B(ed)enken1  that same year. Simultaneously, its regional counterpart IGEL2  was founded.

The two groups were very similar and worked together from the beginning, but only local residents could make official appeals regarding the repository at the time. Since there were also concerned people in the larger region who did not live in Benken itself, IGEL represented their interests until the revised nuclear energy act of 2003 removed the local veto mechanism altogether.

Prior to this, local resistance in the canton of Nidwalden had fended off a planned repository at Wellenberg twice via cantonal votes in 1995 and 2002. With the new law, nuclear waste repositories became a national matter under the Swiss Federal Council's and the parliament's responsibility, giving the electorate the final say through a facultative national referendum. Back in the wine country, IGEL and B(ed)enken merged in 2003 to continue the fight as KLAR! SCHWEIZ3. Led by the ten executive board members, the association currently has about 800 members. Its not quite suburban, yet not really rural home region is a stronghold of the right-wing, conservative Swiss People’s Party. KLAR! SCHWEIZ tends to lean to the left, with good connections to the Social Democratic Party and the Swiss Green Party.
Sign post along the road to Marthalen, advertising the ongoing demonstration organised by KLARSchweiz.

Imagine that highly toxic, radioactive waste will be buried a couple of hundred meters below your house, stored in barrels enclosed in rock layers. The project is underway, so how could someone convince you of this plan?

In fact, there has been widespread distrust in Nagra as the responsible body, partly because of its rather technocratic attitude in earlier projects, such as Wellenberg. The opposition perceived the organization as authoritative and thought it was downplaying the issue of nuclear waste disposal with all the related risks. In our interviews, members of KLAR! SCHWEIZ told me they were on a warpath with Nagra in the early years, but they also acknowledged that the “enemy” has learned from past mistakes.

It has begun to take the opposition more seriously, changed its communication style, and has become more independent and approachable in recent years. Under a new generation of leaders, its image has shifted from a political player to a scientific organization doing its best. But despite these changes, most people’s immediate reaction would probably be: “not in my backyard”.

KLAR! SCHWEIZ has always aimed beyond that attitude. According to the association’s bylaws, its goals include the long-term preservation of an intact environment for future generations, rapid and consistent phase-out of civilian and military use of nuclear energy, maintaining or establishing the democratic rights of the affected population in decisions concerning nuclear issues, the commitment to the safe handling of radioactive waste and constructive opposition to the planning, construction and operation of a repository.

Nuclear phase-out was always an explicit precondition for KLAR! SCHWEIZ to even consider a repository, let alone agree to it or participate in the search for a site. The group argued that otherwise, the amount of waste could simply keep on growing.

A key turning point came in the aftermath of the reactor catastrophe at Fukushima in 2011, when the Swiss government decided to phase out nuclear energy in principle.

Although the existing nuclear power plants can remain in operation as long as they are safe, building new reactors was prohibited in the 2017 national vote on the revised energy law. KLAR! SCHWEIZ had thus achieved one of its most important goals, allowing the association to embark on a “constructive opposition” course, as opposed to the “fundamental opposition” of an anti-nuclear movement that had previously characterized its work.

The group also decided to join the regional participation process that began in 2011. Of great importance were the regional conferences, established at all sites considered suitable for a deep repository at the time. Financed by the Swiss Confederation, the conferences have since emerged as forums where various stakeholders, municipalities or the population in general voice their demands and concerns. For example, they played an essential part in deciding where the surface infrastructure for the repository should be built4.

Some members of KLAR! SCHWEIZ were elected to the regional conference Zürich Nordost (ZNO), and my interview partners explained how being part of this institution gave them access to first-hand information and expert knowledge, despite not being scientists. This was an important aspect for the association because it always tried to stay up to date on current developments in the search for a nuclear waste repository. Some within the group saw it as their task to make the complex, highly technological issue more understandable for the public. Others aimed for more direct influence on the ongoing evaluation process: having often referred to the primacy of safety and the question of responsibility, KLAR! SCHWEIZ was among those who pushed for creating an expert group on safety5 within the framework of the regional conference and held the presidency when it was established.

The shift from fundamental to constructive opposition was not a simple endeavour. KLAR! SCHWEIZ knew it had to be done consciously and carefully, and one way to achieve this was by defining red lines. Every so often, these helped to evaluate whether the system had co-opted the group.

Of course, some movements did not join the regional conferences and remained external to the process. They protested in their own ways: for example, the two organizations Kernfrauen6 and Like Weinland7 both staged their interventions at the proposed location of the repository’s surface infrastructure. The former is a women’s group that held weekly protest vigils at the crossroad between Benken, Marthalen and Rheinau. The farmer Jürg Rasi, who would have had to give up his land if ZNO had been chosen, founded the latter. He set up a 30-ton menhir on his field as a protest monument, which generated media attention and led to a court case.

KLAR! SCHWEIZ supported the efforts of groups like these despite being “on the inside” itself – after all, the goal was to establish a strong countermovement, and not everyone that was part of it necessarily had to agree on everything in terms of political ideology or opposition strategy.

Gathering of farmers at the menhir, organised by LIKE. 

Being part of the regional participation process had its upsides and downsides.

The association learned to contribute to solutions rather than just protest and was able to gain knowledge and influence. Some members of KLAR! SCHWEIZ that I spoke to are certain that this made a difference: they argue that the process improved more with them than without them because they asked what they call “the hard questions.” They say that in the end, if even the opposition could be convinced, the result would be a safer nuclear waste repository.

But not everyone in the association agreed and the executive board itself was split. Some maintained that following this path and being part of the regional conference made them a fig leaf for Nagra and the Swiss Office of Energy (BFE), allowing the authorities to co-opt the opposition and claim that everyone’s concerns were being considered. One of my interview partners reflected on the resources and energies that could have been better spent on loud protests and forceful opposition but were tied up in the participation process instead.

As a result, the resistance calmed down somewhat, even tolerating that the regional conferences came close to crossing some of the red lines that KLAR! SCHWEIZ had defined.

Various members point to the dialogue they were able to maintain with the responsible institutions. This allowed them to raise awareness, which used to be more difficult – in the nineties and early 2000s, there was not much interest in the topic outside of the group’s close circles.

Back then, many people simply believed that Nagra and the authorities would do a decent job and did not see it as their problem since it was so technical and scientific. KLAR! SCHWEIZ always maintained that it was necessary to accompany the process through political channels critically. One member told me that their activism was in the interest of the locals, who often approved of it and even thanked him for it in private conversations, but hesitated to get involved.

This may hint at certain social control mechanisms still present in the conservative villages. It also speaks to political animosities between left and right since a Swiss People’s Party supporter would most likely not attend an event organized by KLAR! SCHWEIZ, who are connected to the Social Democrats and Green Party.

Local band playing at the KLAR demonstration in Marthalen.

On August 28, 2022, KLAR! SCHWEIZ organized a demonstration in Marthalen. In anticipation of the site announcement later in September, the event had been planned for months in collaboration with multiple partner organizations. While the authorities had not yet communicated the exact day they would make the announcement, numerous speakers revealed the press conference's secret date to the audience.

The demonstration under the motto “stop the insanity” took place on a large field. It featured speeches by members of KLAR! SCHWEIZ, various Swiss politicians and a German parliamentarian, as well as musical, theatrical and satirical performances.

The atmosphere on that sunny day was not that of impending doom or worry, although all the speakers emphasized the dangers of a nuclear waste repository. The audience sat in the shade of party tents, drinking beer and eating sausages while listening, occasionally cheering or laughing at a cynical joke. One of my interview partners told me that the organizers had expected between 500 and 1000 participants, but they estimated that only around 500 actually attended. The crowd appeared quite small on the large field, and the impact of the event was ambigous, as a different association member later explained:

It was just before the decision, so the media realized that there was an opposition, which they took much more seriously than it actually was. (…) But in terms of attendance, it was a catastrophe. (…) Nuclear waste is a complicated issue. Many have other priorities. “Oh they’ll do a good job, it’s Switzerland.” But they haven’t seen how dangerous it is. And then they trust (…) Nagra’s publicity does have some effect (…) It’s also a really long process, it goes beyond the span that you could be affected. There’s nothing spontaneous to it if you say “year 28, this will come, year 32, that will happen.” It makes you think “so what.”

As if by coincidence, the Swiss Energy Club launched a popular initiative8 just hours before the demonstration began. The initiative committee features members from the middle to the right, including the Swiss People’s Party. In an attempt to draw political gains from the fears around the climate and energy crises, they demand that power supply must be ensured at all times.

Electricity must be produced in an environmentally and climate-friendly way and all climate-friendly types of electricity production must be permitted. While it sounds like a pro-renewables initiative, it promotes nuclear energy by arguing for “technological freedom”, which includes the option to build new nuclear power plants or extend the runtime of existing reactors. One of my interview partners pointed out that this is a critical red line for KLAR! SCHWEIZ:

I’m convinced that in this country there is no majority for new nuclear power plants. Because it’s too dangerous and the risks aren’t assessable. Because it’s much too expensive. Because it isn’t a solution to the energy or climate crises. (…) Of course, we would fight it with any means possible. (…) We’re facing a complicated energy situation, (…) concessions have been made. For example that the reactors in Germany can run for a bit longer. (…) I can understand that. Due to the war, the resources that aren’t available anymore, electricity, gas, everything. Compromises can be made, but they have to be limited.

Already a couple of days before September 12, the decision on the selected site was leaked. The media reported extensively on the planned repository.

On the morning of the press conference, members of KLAR! SCHWEIZ went to Bern. The police did not allow them to enter the building, so they remained outside and staged a peaceful counter-event. That afternoon, the authorities held an almost identical press conference in Stadel at the NL site. Once again, members of KLAR! SCHWEIZ were present and protested outside, this time in a show of solidarity with the local resistance group LoTi9.

In the following days, Nagra set up an information pavillon in Nördlich Lägern. The authorities pointed out that nothing will be built for at least ten years and that plans will be made in dialogue with the affected region. Further events were held in the following weeks, including a public press conference and Q&A in Stadel on September 13. Another was on October 31 in Zweidlen-Glattfelden, organized by the Office of Energy. Up to 600 people attended there and speakers included Simonetta Sommaruga, who was a Federal Council member at the time10.

Behind closed doors, Nagra is preparing the general license application that will be submitted to the Swiss Federal Nuclear Safety Inspectorate (ENSI). This is part of the ongoing third stage of the Deep Geological Repositories Sectoral Plan, which will continue until the end of 2029.

Ever since September 12, 2022, the spotlight has been on the NL site, where LoTi now finds itself seriously affected – the group has thus far not been a strong political player in the process and is currently in a reorganization phase. On November 26, 2022, the regional conference ZNO voted for its dissolution, which will take effect on June 30, 2023. This reflects a widespread belief in the region that there is nothing left for them to do regarding regional participation because their site has been discarded.

There were understandable feelings of relief in the wine country after the site selection announcement, even among longtime members of KLAR! SCHWEIZ. But the group remains cautious, as Zürich Nordost is still a backup option that could be re-included if there were any problems in Nördlich Lägern.

As far as the future of the political opposition goes, one of my interview partners remained optimistic that the struggle will continue because people are still concerned:

New affectedness will come. The fact that the veto of cantons, districts or municipalities doesn’t exist anymore doesn’t mean nobody is affected. Those who are affected because of their worldview, because they’re against nuclear energy, that’s almost the weakest affectedness. The strongest is Rasi, the farmer who would have had to leave [Rasi founded the group Like Weinland – the repository would have been below his property]. (…) The affectedness needs to grow.

Local activists and citizens waiting for the KLAR demonstration to start. 

At the time of writing, the future role of KLAR! SCHWEIZ remained unclear, but discussions were planned to determine the course.

Most members of the executive board are around retirement age, and some question whether it makes sense to continue their work. There are some concerns that the association may lose supporters – presumably, some people joined because their backyard was affected, which is no longer the case. At the same time, other longtime members find it even more important to keep going for that very same reason.

It should be noted that the association’s goals are not actually tied to the location of a nuclear waste repository, but since the strongest support does come from its home region, a strategic reorientation may become necessary. Options include merging with LoTi or working to build a larger national coalition. The logical partners would be organizations like the Swiss Energy Foundation (SES) or Never Again Nuclear Power Plants (NWA), both of whom KLAR! SCHWEIZ has already collaborated with in the past.

As multiple members pointed out, they still have many open questions, which is reason enough to continue. But motivation might come harder now that the direct threat of a huge construction site next door or nuclear waste underground is gone. What remains is an attitude of obligation and responsibility. This raises further questions: How can the opposition connect with the next generation? Are people willing and able to engage with an issue with such an intangible timeline? And perhaps most importantly: where do nuclear energy and the highly radioactive waste it creates fit in among the debates on the climate and energy crises?

This essay was written by Peter Adler during a Research Lab Module overseen by Dr. Rony Emmenegger as part of the Governance of Risk and Sustainability at the University of Basel. It is based on fieldwork conducted during August and September 2022, as well as multiple interviews with members of KLAR! SCHWEIZ between November 2022 and January 2023.

I wish to express my deepest gratitude to my interview partners, who so graciously shared their time and knowledge with me. Although they remain anonymous in the text, they are experts on the subject, drawing from decades of political work. Writing this essay would not have been possible without them. Special thanks go to the supervisor of this Research Lab project, Dr. Rony Emmenegger – his passionate support, expertise and feedback were invaluable. Lastly, I am grateful for Laura Gabriel, who also worked in the Research Lab and shared her thoughts in many exchanges and discussions.

1  B(ed)enken: “Bewegung gegen eine Atommülldeponie in Benken”, “movement against a nuclear waste repository in Benken.” A play on the village’s name and the German word for concerns or doubts.

2 “Interessengemeinschaft Energie und Lebensraum”, “interest group energy and habitat.” “Igel” is also the German name for hedgehog, the symbol of the group.

3 “Kein Leben mit atomaren Risiken! SCHWEIZ”, “No [to] life with nuclear risks! SWITZERLAND” – the group also had offshoots in Germany and the canton of Schaffhausen.

4 Initially the packaging facilities were meant to be at the same location as the repository, whereas now the plan is to build them at the existing temporary storage facility ZWILAG in Würenlingen.

5 “Fachgruppe Sicherheit.”

6 “Nuclear Women.”

7 “Ländliche Interessengemeinschaft Kein Endlager im Weinland”, “rural interest group no repository in the wine country.”

8 “Jederzeit Strom für alle (Blackout stoppen)”, “electricity for all at all times (stop the blackout).”

9 “Lägern ohne Tiefenlager”, “Lägern without a Deep Repository.”

10 Sommaruga, a social democrat, was the director of the Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications, which the Office of Energy belongs to. She has since retired and been replaced by Albert Rösti of the Swiss People’s Party.


Essential references 


Sign up for regularly updates in your mailbox!