Nuclear plants safe but waste management not

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The country's nuclear power plants have never been safer, according to the Swiss Federal Nuclear Safety Inspectorate - but there is cause for concern.

This content was published on April 24, 2007 - 14:30

The inspectorate said no serious incidents were recorded in any of the five power plants during 2006, but its expert panel says that areas including waste management leave something to be desired.

Professor Walter Wildi, president of the Swiss Federal Nuclear Safety Commission, which advises the inspectorate, told swissinfo that 2006 was a "good year as far as radiation doses, production and failures or rather no failures" were concerned.

However, waste management was less impressive.

"The main division for nuclear safety has published a new regulation on nuclear waste treatment and we found several points such as the lack of limits on the content of organic matter in this waste. This cannot be accepted," he said.

The presence of such matter could have safety implications for long-term disposal solutions of waste produced by the plants.

The core of the problem, in the Commission's view, was that "we think the inspectorate's waste division did not regulate on this point due to the influence of the owners and the waste producers."

This was, Wildi said, something that the public should be concerned about.

"We have to be very strict about this. It cannot be accepted that the inspectors take orders from the nuclear power plant owners and waste producers," he stressed.

As to how the situation could be remedied, Wildi said that a staffing shortage within the inspectorate had to be addressed.

"The waste division has perhaps five or six persons, which is very few when you compare it with Germany or France. This team is just too small. The inspectorate would most probably need an external review system that has real influence on it," he added.

Latest figures

In its annual report published on Friday, the safety inspectorate said that for the most part all was well on the nuclear scene.

"The inspectorate found that nuclear safety – in terms of the design and operation of facilities in all Swiss nuclear power plants – was good throughout the year under review and facilities complied with their operating licences," it said.

Nine so-called incidents in power plants were registered but none posed a safety risk. All were classified as Level 0 on the International Nuclear Event Scale or "no safety significance".

"They had minimal impact on nuclear safety," the inspectorate said.

It added that some problems occurred during the transport of some radioactive materials in 2006 but that the Swiss authorities were not at fault.

These included four "classified incidents".

"All... were the result of a lack of care on the part of the consignor abroad," the report said.

The release of radioactive materials in the environment through wastewater and exhaust air from power plants was found to be minimal.

"The analyses showed that the maximum dose, including for individuals living in the immediate vicinity of a plant was less than one per cent of the annual exposure to natural radiation," the report revealed.

swissinfo, Faryal Mirza

Key facts

Switzerland has five nuclear power stations - Beznau I (1969), Beznau II (1972), Mühleberg (1972), Gösgen (1987) and Leibstadt (1984).
Nuclear energy is used solely for peaceful purposes in Switzerland.
There are 440 nuclear power stations in use throughout the world accounting for around 17% of the total global electricity production.

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Electricity production 2006

Switzerland's five nuclear power stations contributed 26.2 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity last year, up from 22.9 billion kWh in 2005, (+19.2 per cent).

Nuclear plants contributed 42.2% of the alpine state's total energy production last year.

Hydroelectric stations produced 52.4% while conventional thermal and other power plants totalled 5.4%.

Electricity production rose by 7.3% to 62.1 billion kWh, up from 57.9 kWh in 2005.

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