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Atomic energy unpopular despite widespread use

(Keystone)

Nuclear energy provides Switzerland with 40 per cent of its power but more than half of the public oppose the technology to some degree, a survey has revealed.

The study, released on Tuesday by the Federal Energy Office, found that just seven per cent of respondents were totally in favour of energy production by nuclear power stations.

Double that percentage were fully opposed.

The bulk of Swiss – 33 per cent and 38 per cent – said they were fairly in favour and fairly opposed, respectively. Eight per cent had no answer.

One of the biggest issues of contention is finding a place to put radioactive waste. At present, spent nuclear material is kept in temporary aboveground facilities while politicians and communities wrangle over where to bury it.

On Saturday, 2,000 protestors gathered at a site north of Zurich - a region under evaluation for storing spent nuclear fuel.

Safe disposal

"Safe disposal is feasible in Switzerland," Werner Bühlmann, the deputy director and head of the legal services and safety division at the Federal Energy Office, told swissinfo.

He added that while a feasibility study by the Swiss nuclear agency – Nagra – had been approved, there is no definite place at present for spent fuel to be stored.

There is enough intermediate storage capacity in Switzerland for the next 60 years, Bühlmann said.

There are facilities for low-radiation material in Scandinavia, but for the most part, authorities around the world are faced with the same reality: people enjoy the benefits of nuclear power but nobody wants to deal with the waste.

Increasingly, Europeans are seeing nuclear energy as a positive force in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Danger

However, Social Democratic parliamentarian Rudolf Rechsteiner, a prominent anti-nuclear advocate in Switzerland, says it is not worth the risk.

"Atomic energy is qualitatively a more dangerous energy and internationally, the experiences have been negative regardless of whether a country uses nuclear energy or not," he told swissinfo. He says the hazards of nuclear are played down by the industry and quotes a shocking statistic in defence of his argument.

"Since Chernobyl, many people have woken up and know that each reactor produces as much radioactive materials each day as three to four atomic bombs," he said.

Rechsteiner calls nuclear power "a great strain on the environment".

"The situation today is that we can perfectly replace nuclear energy with renewable sources – wind and sun," he argued. He says wind energy could make up ten per cent of Switzerland's energy by 2025 to 2030.

A better option?

Horst-Michael Prasser, an expert in nuclear systems at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and a proponent of nuclear technology, says that if done properly, it is inexpensive and safe.

"The only minus for nuclear is a high potential risk with a very, very low probability for a large accident," he told swissinfo.

"But if the plants are operated normally at a high level of safety, then nuclear is better than anything else in terms of, for example, land use, health costs, by the amounts of raw materials."

He says the ecological friendliness of so-called green technology is not as straightforward as it appears.

"If you compare nuclear with wind energy or solar energy, you will find that the mass flows of copper and concrete and steel that you need for running the energy system are at least one order of magnitude higher than the other fields," he said.

Werner Bühlmann of the Energy Office finds himself understanding the merits of both arguments.

For opponents, the small chance of a massive catastrophe is untenable but on the other hand, with the exception of one ten-year moratorium, the public has rejected every single referendum to ban nuclear energy since the 1970s.

"It is difficult to find a middle position. It seems to be a question of faith."

swissinfo, Justin Häne

Key facts

The survey was carried out among 1,026 Swiss citizens across the country.
The poll took place in June and July 2008.
A similar survey was conducted in the 27 EU member states in spring this year.

end of infobox

Support in Switzerland and Europe

Overall, 40% of Swiss support nuclear energy and 52% are opposed.

In the European Union, 43% are in favour and 45% oppose. Five years ago, 55% of people in EU countries opposed.

However, if there were a safe and permanent solution to manage radioactive waste, 37% of those opposed in Switzerland would change their mind. In Europe, 39% would.

As a whole, opinions in Switzerland are distributed generally evenly, although support for nuclear energy is higher among males, people who identify on the right of the political spectrum, rural people and people over 55.

Young people, women, those left-of-centre and in urban areas are more likely to oppose nuclear power.

People in Italian-speaking Switzerland are most passionate about the issue: 16% fully support and 20% fully oppose while in the country's German-speaking east, only 5% fully support and 8% fully oppose.

Switzerland has five nuclear reactors at four sites. All are in the German-speaking part of the country.

end of infobox

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