One year after the Fukushima atomic disaster in Japan, Switzerland is facing a long road ahead towards its intended goal of a nuclear-free future.
While the technology to replace atomic power, especially for renewable energy, exists to a large extent, its implementation faces financial and political hurdles before it becomes a reality.
“There was a before and after Fukushima moment. Swiss energy policy was never the same,” Christian Democrat Party president Christophe Darbellay said. Indeed, a full spectrum of politicians questioned by swissinfo.ch believe the country’s decision to give up nuclear power was irreversible.
Shortly after they were interviewed the Federal Administrative Court ruled the Mühleberg nuclear power station in canton Bern could no longer operate as of June 2013 for safety reasons. The court accepted a complaint by local opponents against the indefinite extension of the plant’s licence.
Even the Swiss People’s Party, which has described the government’s decision to end nuclear power as too hasty, seems to have yielded to events. “The change in direction is irreversible, considering the majority in parliament,” said party vice-president Guy Parmelin.
It’s the same thinking at the Radicals. “After Fukushima, we realised there wouldn’t be a majority result if we had to ask the public to approve a replacement of the nuclear power stations with current technology,” said parliamentarian Jacques Bourgeois.
Coupled with this anti-nuclear political climate are the practical aspects. “The process of building a power station is very long. Even if the nuclear proponents managed to have a building project approved in five years the new station would not be in service before 2040,” said Roger Nordmann, of the Social Democrats.
“And yet our current stations are already too old should atomic power supporters want them replaced before the end of their working lives. It’s clear that we will have a period without nuclear power.”
Symbol of resistance
The government has foreseen that the last nuclear power station will be shut down in 2034. But for Mühleberg, one of the oldest stations in the country, the situation is evolving much more quickly than previously thought.
Even if the Federal Administrative Court’s decision to revoke Mühleberg’s operating licence could be subject to an appeal at Switzerland’s top court, the fate of the plant, which has suffered several minor incidents, seems sealed. Repairs to update the station would mean investing hundreds of millions of francs.
Political opposition is also strong. A cantonal initiative calling for its immediate cessation has even been lodged with the Bern Chancellery.
The leftwing and green parties are pushing for a quick shutdown. “It urgently needs to be closed down,” said Liberal Green parliamentarian Isabelle Chevalley. “In Germany the authorities decided to close the same kind of plant that had been having similar problems. In Switzerland, we’re happy to find a quick fix.”
The political right however has always puts its faith in decisions by the Federal Nuclear Safety Inspectorate, which has said Mühleberg can continue to operate if necessary repairs are carried out. It remains to be seen if the court’s decision is the end of the affair.
The intensity of the discussions surrounding the station is no surprise to Darbellay. “The debate over Mühleberg is huge, because it has become a target of those resisting nuclear power,” he said.
Political figures believe there are two ways of filling the gap left by nuclear power. First of all, with energy efficiencies. “That’s the first thing to do. Studies show that we could cut back on half of nuclear power production in the industrial sector alone,” said Darbellay.
“Not having electronic equipment on standby would allow to save the equivalent of the output of more than one station. We can see where we need to act,” said the president of the Greens, Ueli Leuenberger.
The other avenue is the development of renewable energies. “Their technical potential largely surpasses current nuclear power,” said Nordmann.
“Everyone agrees with the fact that half of the replacement of nuclear energy will be provided by solar power, because this technology is simple to use and it’s getting cheaper. But we also need a wintertime power source and therefore need wind turbines, biomass and hydroelectricity.”
“Technically, everything is possible if we want to make quick progress,” added Leuenberger.
“On our website [the Greens] we have a scenario for exiting nuclear power by the end of 2020. We are not inventing anything. We are simply using work done by scientists and the federal administration. It just requires political will.”
But technical issues aren’t everything. Different politicians from the right already are demanding that the country’s energy supply be guaranteed at “competitive prices”, according to Bourgeois.
Both the government and a parliamentary majority have backed ending nuclear power. All that remains now is to put it into action – no mean feat.
“Intentions are all well and good. But when I see the length of the process, I think to myself that we might have some nasty surprises,” said Parmelin.
For the moment, the political circles await a government report that will provide concrete information on the way out of nuclear power: legislative changes, measures for promoting renewable energy, measures for efficiencies, costs, and a schedule. It is due to be presented in September.
The report will be subject to a consultation process. The government will then finalise the project and submit it to parliament. Considering all the stages involved, it is quite possible that the package of measures for exiting nuclear power will not come into force before January 2016.
The timeframe of the process is worrying some politicians, particularly on the left.
“No political majority has yet made a clear statement on the pace of this withdrawal from nuclear power,” said Leuenberger.
“The length of the process is a big problem for renewables, because the current [financial] means for supporting them will only last until mid-2013,” warned Nordmann. “It is absolutely essential to have at least some agreement, otherwise we will halt the development of renewable energy in mid-flow.”
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.
The 9.0-magnitude Tokohu earthquake and the ensuing tsunami knocked out reactor cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, 240 km north of Tokyo, triggering meltdowns in three of the six nuclear reactors and radiation leaks. Japan faces a huge and costly radiation clean-up near the plant.
After the disaster, the Swiss government decided to decommission all the nuclear power plants starting in 2019 and ending by 2034.
During the 2011 autumn session, the proposal was accepted by parliament, which at the same time said it wanted to keep its options open for possible new nuclear technologies.
On December 1, 2011 the government announced it planned to study closely the possibility of an environmental tax reform.
The government is due to present a report on the exit from nuclear power (costs, schedule, measures). This document is not expected before the second half of 2012.
(Translated from French by Jessica Dacey), swissinfo.ch