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Debate set to continue over nuclear energy

The control centre at the Beznau nuclear plant

(Keystone)

Parliament has discussed the future of nuclear energy in Switzerland, but a consensus is still not in sight.

The House of Representatives tackled the highly controversial issue on Thursday, debating a series of proposals. The arguments will continue during parliament's autumn session.

Environmental organisations and centre-left political parties have called for the gradual shutdown of the country's five nuclear power plants and an end to the reprocessing of spent fuel rods.

The same groups also want to ban the construction of new reactors and to block any capacity upgrade over the next ten years. A previous moratorium ran out in 2000.

Nuclear option

The government has come out against these proposals, insisting it wants to retain the option of nuclear energy.

According to a draft law presented to parliament, Swiss voters would be able to challenge the construction of new nuclear power plants. A ban would also be gradually imposed on the reprocessing of spent fuel rods.

Last December, the Senate rejected the government's draft law. Instead it voted to give the nuclear industry another ten years to reprocess spent rods. This decision was widely seen as the result of lobbying by the Swiss nuclear industry.

Hans Rudolf Gubser of the Swiss power corporation, Axpo, argues that the Senate's recommendation sent out a strong signal that there is political support for the nuclear industry.

Reprocessing

Anti-nuclear groups are concerned that the law will have no clout if the House of Representatives rejects the government's proposals.

In the past, Switzerland's nuclear plants have sent their spent fuel rods to reprocessing plants in Britain and France, but protesters in Switzerland have often tried to block such transports for safety reasons.

Environmental organisations are promoting renewable energy resources as a viable alternative to nuclear power. "We are pushing solar and wind energy because Switzerland's use of water power is still about 80 per cent," says Kaspar Schuler from Greenpeace Switzerland.

In 1997, electricity from nuclear power accounted for around 25 per cent of total energy supply in Switzerland, according to official statistics.


Schuler dismisses suggestions that supplies generated by renewable energy resources could not replace nuclear power. "It is a matter of investing in renewable energy," Schuler told swissinfo.

The nuclear industry, for its part, says it would welcome greater use of renewable energy sources, but it doubts whether the Swiss are willing to foot the bill.

"Voters last year overwhelmingly rejected the introduction of a new tax on non-renewable power to promote alternative sources of energy," Gubser told swissinfo.

Waste storage

Switzerland does not have a permanent storage site for medium radioactive waste. The federal authorities have tried to mediate between environmental groups and the nuclear industry to try to find a suitable location for a long-term storage dump.

Voters in central Switzerland rejected a plan for a storage site near Lake Lucerne in 1995.

However, Axpo representative Gubser insists Switzerland should be allowed to follow international solutions for waste repositories.

European comparison

Switzerland's neighbouring countries differ considerably in their stance towards nuclear energy. While Germany is planning to phase out the nuclear option, France generates about 70 per cent of its electricity with nuclear power plants.

In a landmark vote in 1978, Austria decided against nuclear energy. There is continuing opposition against such plants in neighbouring countries, including Switzerland.

Some observers say a decision by Finland in May to allow the construction of a new nuclear reactor could herald a new era for Europe's nuclear industry.

by Urs Geiser and Jonathan Summerton


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