A Swiss Mountain May Soon Be Alive With Nuclear Waste

SOME might think that only in the Twilight Zone would a small mountain village consider storing nuclear waste. But that is the case with tiny Wolfenschiessen in central Switzerland.

This village of 2,000 hugs the foothills of Mt. Wellenberg. The National Cooperative for the Storage of Radioactive Waste (NAGRA), a quasi-governmental agency, chose Mt. Wellenberg in 1989 to be Switzerland's future low-level nuclear waste repository. Since then, the area has been the scene of bitter debates.

While Wolfenschiessen has always welcomed the idea, largely because it will receive $3.1 million a year to store the waste, neighboring towns are worried about having nuclear waste in their neighbor's backyard. A recent proposal to store the waste there was defeated 52 percent to 48 percent in a recent cantonwide vote. Yet the issue is far from settled.

Nearly 40 percent of Switzerland's electricity comes from nuclear power, so it needs a permanent storage site for low-level waste. Like the US, it has been storing its waste on-site at reactors. Also like the US, it is running out of room and must find a repository soon. According to Swiss law, NAGRA must construct a test tunnel by 1998 so that it can begin storing the waste by 2005.

Unlike many other European countries, Switzerland is choosing deep burial storage. Spain, Sweden, Italy, and Finland plan to store their nuclear waste above ground in concrete-filled metal cylinders stacked in concrete-filled basins. The US also plans on shallow burial or surface storage.

Experts consider Wellenberg to be a perfect graveyard for nuclear waste. The mountain is virtually water-tight, with the oldest traces of water more than 3,000 years old.. Geologists are confident the mountain won't change much in the next several million years, says Marcel Guntesperger, a chemist for NAGRA.

The Swiss method, burying the waste 1,500 feet beneath Mt. Wellenberg in concrete-filled steel canisters, doesn't calm some people in the surrounding area. The region is dependent on $110 million a year from tourism.

''We were against the whole thing,'' says Ruedi Souter, director of tourism for the nearby town of Engelberg. ''We were against it because we didn't know how all our guests would react. We got letters from people that said if this comes, we'll stay away.''

But where Engelberg worries about losing money, Wolfenschiessen knows it has much to gain. It received $2.7 million from NAGRA for changing zoning in the town to make nuclear-waste storage possible. Until a favorable vote passes, it will get $267,000 a year. And if NAGRA gets permission, the town will get the $3.1 million a year.

That doesn't placate environmental groups, such as Greenpeace, which helped defeat the vote. ''This fight will continue to be on our agenda because there will never, ever be safe underground storage,'' says Ailia Ziegler, codirector of the Greenpeace office in Zurich.

But H.F. Meyer, a spokesman for the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, counters that there always has been natural geological disposal of radioactive materials. An IAEA publication points out that 2 billion years ago, in present-day Gabon, West Africa, a spontaneous nuclear reaction occurred within a vein of uranium ore that created a natural nuclear reactor. For nearly 500,000 years, it produced elements similar to those found in high-level manmade nuclear waste.

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