"Depending on how the work develops, residents should expect the evacuation to last up to more than 10 years," Switzerland Ministry of Defence said.
Seventy years ago some 7,000 tonnes (15 million pounds) of World War Two ammunition exploded, along with the underground warehouse in which it had been stored, in the village of Mitholz in the Bernese Alps, Switzerland, killing nine people including four children, blowing up homes and the railway line.
Now Switzerland authorities are fearful such a horrific tragedy could take place again and Defence Minister Viola Amherd in person told the 170 villagers in Mitholz that they may have to abandon their homes for 10 years while safety experts clear a nearby underground depot containing 3,500 tonnes of World War Two ammunition and explosives.
The roof of the underground depot has partially caved in, with falling rocks landing on the cache, and the Switzerland Ministry of Defence saying the risk the ammunition and explosives posed is now “unacceptable”, SwissInfo reported.
The planned operation, which could cost CHF1 billion (US$1.03 billion) came after numerous studies and a report by the Federal Office for the Environment, concluded last year that the ageing ordinance, part buried under fallen rocks, posed a bigger danger than previously assumed.
“Depending on how the work develops, residents should expect the evacuation to last up to more than 10 years,” the ministry told Euronews, with 2031 being the earliest the ammunition and explosives could be removed.
Officials said the project will be difficult because a rock formation covering the weapons is unstable and can only be removed in layers. Crews also might have to build new roads to keep local areas connected.
Residents would have to approve the plan to leave the area and a public consultation process is under way to see how best to proceed.
“People live there who have been rooted in the village for generations,” Brigitte Rindlisbacher, chair of the Mitholz working group, reportedly said. “It hurts to see them in this situation.”
A resident told RTS the plan “makes my stomach ache”, while another said: “If they ask us to leave then they will have to offer us compensation.”
Switzerland is famous for not having fought a war since 1815. However, for four years during World War Two, Switzerland was entirely surrounded by Germany and its allies. At one point German leader Adolf Hitler commissioned invading Switzerland.
To protect themselves, Switzerland called up hundreds of thousands of men to join an Army. They developed a defensive plan, called the National Redoubt, and built a series of fortifications deep inside the mountainous country to defend against would-be attackers.