A ruling by the Swiss Administrative Court ordering the closure of the Mühleberg nuclear power station has galvanised anti-nuclear campaigners elsewhere in Europe too.
If the plant, just outside Bern, really is closed down, this would step up pressure on old nuclear stations at home and abroad.
The court said Mühleberg must close by June 2013 unless the operators, BKW, show that they are prepared to invest massively in maintenance and repair. Among the causes of concern it cited were fissures in the reactor’s core shroud and the absence of a cooling system other than the River Aare.
BKW is fighting the ruling. It says decommissioning would be extremely expensive, and although it would not bring the company down, it would weaken it, and mean it had less money for investment. So it wants to keep Mühleberg in operation, as long as it is “safe and economical” to do so.
The Austrian federal state of Vorarlberg on the Swiss border – regarded as particularly strongly anti-nuclear - has filed a complaint against Mühleberg and says it will not drop it until Mühleberg has been decommissioned.
Vorarlberg’s governor, Markus Wallner, told the local media there that the Administrative Court ruling showed the risk the plant represents.
When contacted by swissinfo.ch, the Swiss energy ministry said it was not yet aware of the complaint and could therefore not comment.
"Should there be an accident, the people of Vorarlberg could be affected rapidly and seriously,” Linz lawyer Christian Hadeyer, who is handling the case, told swissinfo.ch.
There is a lot of discussion about Mühleberg’s safety in Vorarlberg, he said, "especially since it has been learnt that the construction is similar to that of the disaster reactor in Fukushima and we have seen with our own eyes what safety hazards there are".
Mühleberg is not the only plant in Vorarlberg’s sights. It is taking legal steps against the German nuclear power station at Gundremmingen too. Hadeyer’s office has also been engaged by another Austrian state, Upper Austria, to conduct a case against the Temelin plant in the Czech Republic.
Austria has long opposed nuclear power stations. In 1978 voters decided by a narrow margin that their own newly built plant at Zwentendorf should never come into operation. The biggest “no” vote came from Vorarlberg. In the same year Austria passed a law banning the use of nuclear energy.
Nevertheless, although Austria has not produced any nuclear power itself, about six per cent of its consumption comes from nuclear power generated by its neighbours. Environmental organisations even put this as high as 20 per cent.
Fessenheim and Mühleberg
In France, which gets most of its energy from nuclear power plants, the press has said little about the Mühleberg ruling. But anti-nuclear activists have been following events closely.
"We were very pleased to hear about the Swiss court decision,” said André Hatz, a member of the "Stop Fessenheim" organisation, named after France’s oldest nuclear power plant still in operation, situated on the border with Germany and only 40 kilometres from Switzerland.
"I am not surprised that an appeal has been lodged, since we know the power of the nuclear lobby in France. I can only advise the associations and people to stand firm to ensure that the Mühleberg station really does stop operation in 2013.”
Opponents of Fessenheim from France, Germany and Switzerland - grouped together in the Trinational Association for Nuclear Protection (ATPN) – lost a similar case last year, which they brought against the French Safety Authority (ASN). The ASN had extended the plant’s licence to operate.
“It was almost exactly the same situation as at Mühleberg, except that the complaint was rejected,” Florien Kraft of the ASN told swissinfo.ch.
He said that everyone recognised that nuclear disasters do not stop at borders.
“We have very close contacts with Switzerland. Since 1989 we have had frequent exchanges of information, and we conduct inspections of each other’s sites.”
An ASN inspector visited Mühleberg in December 2011. Although Kraft was unable to comment on the safety of Swiss power stations, he said if inspectors were concerned by anything, they would point it out.
“The decision to switch off Mühleberg was made on the basis of rather subtle criteria which perhaps are not obvious to the inspectors,” he commented.
If Mühleberg – now 40 years old - is indeed turned off in 2013, this would increase the pressure to do the same at Fessenheim, which is only six years younger, he admitted.
"Since Germany announced that it would abandon nuclear power by 2022, and Switzerland halted new projects, the number of anti-nuclear campaigners has increased in France too,” he said.
The city of Freiburg in southern Germany has long been known for its anti-nuclear stance. It is an official member of the ATPN.
Dieter Wörner, head of the Freiburg environment office told swissinfo.ch that the local media had reported in detail about the legal wrangling over the future of Mühleberg, but that people in general are more concerned about Fessenheim, only 25 kilometres away.
“We have to keep up the cross-border fight, whether to demand the closure of Fessenheim or of Mühleberg, both of which represent an intolerable risk for the people around them,” said Hatz.
Swiss nuclear power plants
Switzerland currently has five nuclear reactors which generate about 40% of the country’s energy.
They are: Beznau I (commissioned 1969)
Beznau II (1972)
Recent Swiss nuclear policy is influenced by the Fukushima disaster in March 2011.
A magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami knocked out reactor cooling systems at the Fukushima plant, 240 km north of Tokyo, triggering meltdowns in three of the six nuclear reactors and radiation leaks.
After the disaster, the Swiss government decided to decommission all the nuclear power plants starting in 2019 and ending by 2034.
It estimates the cost of phasing out nuclear power at SFr2.2-SFr3.8 billion ($2.5-$4.4 billion).
The government says the power generated by the plants will be replaced by hydroelectric power, renewable energy and combined gas plants among other methods.
(Translated by Julia Slater)