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German nuclear plan fuels debate in Switzerland

The changing room at the Leibstadt nuclear power station: will scientists soon be hanging up their lab coats for good?

(Keystone)

Germany's decision to phase out nuclear energy has given new impetus to a long-running debate in Switzerland. Switzerland's energy minister, Moritz Leuenberger, said he was envious at the ease with which the Germans resolved the issue.

Under the agreement, Germany's 19 power plants are to be closed after a lifespan of 32 years. That means the last nuclear plant will cease operations in 20 years' time.

The German decision is likely to have major repercussions in Switzerland, where a similar debate over nuclear energy has been going on for many years. Leuenberger said the issue was much more difficult to resolve because "The ideological divide is much wider here than in Germany".

On one side of that divide is a powerful nuclear lobby, determined to protect the industry. Peter Hählen, secretary-general of the Swiss Association for Nuclear Energy, says the news from Berlin will not do his cause any good.

"Clearly it does not give us a boost to vitalise or accelerate the development of nuclear energy. It rather dampens our political prospects," he said. But he insisted Germany's decision would not speed up the phasing out process in Switzerland.

"There is no majority pressing for the phasing out of nuclear energy in Switzerland. We have had three national votes on the issue, and three times the Swiss public said no."

But Alfred Neukom, an analyst at the daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung, says the public might not say no a fourth time. "I think the public will be more influenced by the German decision than the parliamentarians."

And the public will have its say again. Environmental organisations are determined to force the closure of Switzerland's five nuclear power stations, and have gathered enough signatures to force a nationwide referendum on two anti-nuclear plans.

One initiative calls for Switzerland to phase out nuclear power within ten years; the other demands a 10-year extension of an existing moratorium on building new power plants. Both issues have to be put to a vote by 2003.

But as the greens increase the pressure, the Swiss nuclear industry is also stepping up its campaign to try to convince the public that atomic power stations are cost-effective and clean. A study commissioned by the industry earlier this year said the more radical initiative would cost the economy SFr40 billion, and the moratorium SFr29 billion.

It also warned that closing nuclear power stations could lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, if more electricity was generated using fossil fuels.

In an attempt to reconcile the opposing positions, the government has been holding a wide-ranging consultation process. Parliamentarians are debating a draft law aimed at regulating nuclear waste reprocessing, and looking at the feasibility of introducing a time-limit for the lifespan of nuclear power plants.

by Malcolm Shearmur

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